The 18th Century French writer Nicolas Chamfort once urged, “A man must swallow a toad every morning if he wishes to be sure of finding nothing still more disgusting before the day is over.”
If you’re not looking forward to annoying people who seem to elevate provocation to an art form, consider the following prayer offered by the great Stoic Philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 CE–180 CE) in Meditations (trans. Gregory Hays.)
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me with ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.
Along those lines, the Buddha taught his followers to transcend ignorance through knowledge by observing four practices of inner conduct: loving kindness, altruistic compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity with regard to the impure and the evil. And in the New Testament,
- Luke 23:34 suggests, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
- Peter 2:23 offers the example of Jesus, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to Him who judges justly.”
- Romans 12:17–21 recommend, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Considered Response, Not Naiveté
Aurelius’s urging tolerance, understanding, and patience towards difficult people may sound like naiveté at first glance, but what he urges is a wise and measured response.
Aurelius (121–180 CE) was one of the great Stoic philosophers. Stoic philosophy was founded by Zeno of Citium in the 3rd century BCE. Its core themes of inner solitude, forbearance in adversity, and acceptance of fate gained far-flung following and made it the dominant philosophy across the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.
One of Stoic philosophy’s central beliefs is that destructive emotions result from our errors in judgment. The Stoics argue that many things aren’t within our control, as I elaborated in previous articles (here and here.) The best way to deal with situations we have little control over is to anticipate and neutralize any negative feelings.
Stoic Forbearance through Emotional Detachment
The Stoics argued that our lives will be dramatically different if we realize that we can neither avoid annoying people nor change them. We must accept this reality and work on how we respond and interact with them. In On Tranquility of Mind, the other great Stoic philosopher Seneca (65 BCE–4 CE) wrote:
By looking forward to whatever can happen as though it would happen, he will soften the attacks of all ills, which bring nothing strange to those who have been prepared beforehand and are expecting them; it is the unconcerned and those that expect nothing but good fortune upon whom they fall heavily. Sickness comes, captivity, disaster, conflagration, but none of them is unexpected—I always knew in what disorderly company Nature had confined me.
As popular books on Stoicism expound, the Stoics encouraged a meditative practice of negative visualization called premeditatio malorum (premeditation of evils.) As suggested by Aurelius in his prayer, premeditatio malorum consists of contemplating the potential challenges of the day ahead, thinking about which of the four cardinal virtues (courage, equanimity, self-control and wisdom) we may have to engage and how. By rehearsing not to resign ourselves to adversities, we’re prepared for a more considered response—we could forgive, forget, appreciate and empathize.
As part of the premeditatio malorum practice, we’re to contemplate a priori potential difficulties, setbacks, and misfortunes. While envisaging all the difficulties and evils we could foresee seems like an unwholesome—perhaps even a morbid—exercise, the Stoics argue that this practice can help us react to bad news with equanimity and hence minimize the impact of bad news on our self-worth or confidence. If and when a bad thing should actually happen, our initial response would be to think that “this wasn’t totally unexpected.” While we’d rather it hadn’t happened, we would nevertheless not be surprised by it because this potential outcome was expected all along.
Idea for Impact: Cultivate Equanimity and Manage Yourself First
To handle a difficult person, prepare yourself by thinking of all the things that could go wrong. Don’t focus on how he behaves, but focus on how you can react to him. By ignoring his irritating behaviors, you can neutralize his effect on you. In other words, if someone is being difficult but you don’t feel the difficulty he’s imposed upon you, you don’t have a problem.
The cognitive reframing suggested by the Stoics can be particularly effective in situations where you have little to no control. It’s far more productive to focus on your own behavior because you can control it. And by managing yourself first, you’ll come to appreciate that the annoying person isn’t as annoying anymore. As the other Stoic philosopher Epictetus reminds us, “Man is shaped not by events but the meaning he gives them.”