Lately I’m trying to teach my younger brother what it means to be a moral human being. We’re both relatively inquisitive people and we both seem drawn to the idea of the human mind. Myself, I’m more intrigued by the idea that we’re capable of whatever we allow ourselves to believe we are. My little brother considers the study of psychology an opportunity to better understand himself, and consequently others, so that he might one day provide insight and assistance to those who cannot give insight to themselves. Admirable AF. I’ve recently given him Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. He enjoys some minor ideas but his process was a little screwy at first. He actually has read the introductory part of the collection (Book 1) three times at this point, the third time being with me in the room with him so that he might get clarification when he doesn’t understand something. It’s warmed my heart to find that the lines which reference Marcus’s brother are always underlined. Whether out of ego or simply desire to do right by my brother and help him the way my father helped me, it makes me smile and reassures me I’m doing something right.
In helping him to understand it, I came across an idea that might benefit others just as it benefits him. “Book 1” of Meditations isn’t the simplest of the twelve, and the Greg Hays translation only lists names and the ideas Marcus Aurelius has gained from them. It’s a fantastic list and definitely helps give us some insight on just how many good examples the emperor drew his ideas from, but the macro lesson here is easy to miss. We all likely have these role models and aren’t paying attention.
Marcus understood there was a capability to learn from everyone around him. We could all benefit from reflecting on what we’ve learned from the people in our lives. What have your parents/guardians taught you that made you a better person? What have you gained from your closest friends that benefits your personality? Who else has made an impact on you for the better, and what was that impact? It is questions like these that Marcus reflected on in order to record ”Book 1”, and it is these same questions we should ask ourselves. What do we admire of these people, and how can we better embody those traits ourselves? I’ve found it difficult to change my way of thinking and remember clearly having issues with my own evolution. The thoughts stopping me along the way were some you may find yourself struggling with:
”I can’t do that.” “That’s not me.” “I’ll never be like that.”
I can tell you as someone who has forced the changes upon himself, whatever you think you can’t do, you likely won’t. The process of self-improvement is difficult, filled with constant reminders and self-discipline. Despite Marcus’s simple framing, he understood this aspect of stoicism was a learning process which carried a hefty curve with it. The best way to get yourselves further up that curve is to begin stopping yourself mid-thought and correcting those thoughts. Quite literally, changing how you think.
”I can do this because…”, “I will be the person who…”, “I’m working towards becoming…”
The things we admire in others can be second-nature to them. They simply grok the idea and live it, and often we can’t just ask them “how/why do you?” But I’d challenge you to try. While it is important to pay attention on your own, if someone has a trait that you admire, it would benefit you to ask if they even realize it. Ask why they do it, or how they came to understand it as a necessary or even worthwhile behavior. Chances are their explanation will aid you in your endeavor to better embody the trait yourself. My brother has a bad habit of wishing people would simply give him a step-by-step on “How to be a Better Person”. While I’m not certain such a book exists (or that it doesnt), I’d like to believe that there are some “self-help” books that address these issues with logical and reasonable insight that clarifies how and why we should behave in these ways. While I’m not certain that Marcus Aurelius is the definitive solution, he does seem to be well-received and well-spoken of in current stoic trends. I’m no expert and very much a student myself, I’d like to make that perfectly clear. However, as a student who understands the constant struggle to progress, I would hope this helps give you an idea of how to seek some bettering without sounding too naive or simplistic.
Make no mistake, this is no easy task. When push comes to shove, the only people left standing are those who gave it their all. If reading over this post had you feeling uneasy and uncomfortable about talking to some of those you admire, I’d encourage you especially, do it. You’d likely be surprised how much of a compliment it would be to tell someone “I’ve always liked the way that you did this, could you tell me how/why you do?” And hopefully, upon reading this, someone will come to you and ask that same question.
I hope this leads you to happy discussions and some progress on your path to better yourself. Please leave a comment if you’ve any questions or feedback on the subject, and if I can help you in any way please don’t hesitate to reach out to me as I’m always glad to help others and discuss methods of improvement.
(A special Thanks to my little brother Gareth for his willingness to grow, regardless how scary and new that may be.)