Do you have one of those shelves in your home library? You know what I’m talking about–the one that’s lined with all of those books you tell yourself you’re going to read one day, but you never do. Little, if any, of what’s on the shelf is sexy, exciting stuff. It’s mostly classical literature, a few classic pieces of philosophy. Maybe a volume or two of poetry– boring stuff. That’s probably why it never gets read.
With strict orders to not put any weight on my foot for another 4 weeks, I’ve had some time to do a little extra reading. So, I’ve pulled a few volumes off that shelf and started to read a few of these books that I promised myself one day I’d get to. One of these works is Meditations, by the stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius.
What is interesting for me about Marcus Aurelius is that he was not a philosopher sitting in an ivory tower. He was the leader of the Roman Empire. And as such he had to deal with all of the things that go with ruling the largest empire in the world. He had to wage war. He had to contend with several coups and several attempts on his life. During his reign he had to deal with a horrific plague that decimated a huge chunk of the population. And he did all of this with the perennial problem of a depleting treasury. Even better, Aurelius didn’t write Meditations while reclining in a palace enjoying fine wine and luxurious meals. He wrote it on the banks of the Danube, sitting in a cold wet tent, preparing to lead his army in a war with the tribes of Germania.
Recovering from surgery, and with real mobility being months away, I was attracted by this small volume because it was written by someone who, it seems, might know a little something about how frequently life’s challenges can unexpectedly seem to block our path forward.
Our actions may be impeded…but there can be no impeding our
intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and
adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the
obstacle to our acting…
The impediment to action advances action.
What stands in the way becomes the way.
I imagine the primary reason history views Marcus Aurelius as the ultimate philosopher/king, is that he viewed life’s challenges as opportunities, not as obstacles. While most of the time we might not be able to control the advent of the disruptions that can instantly destroy the plans we’ve made for ourselves, Aurelius suggests that we can control our responses to those disruptions. And once we do that life’s disruptions can become opportunities for forging a new path forward.
My current obstacle is a ruptured Achilles (and the weeks of immobility that will prevent me from doing all of the things I’m aching to do). It’s easy for me to believe that this period of immobility is a problem in my life right now. However, if I look closely enough, I see that the real problem is not my immobility. The real problem is how I react to not being able to live life exactly like I had planned it. The ruptured Achilles doesn’t have anything to do with this problem. Even when my health is good I’m constantly running up against some type of obstacle that I believe keeps me from achieving what I want or suddenly prevents me from traveling a path I was planning to travel. And when that happens, I get more than a little frustrated.
That’s true for all of us, isn’t it? The plans we make and the plans the universe makes for us are almost always two very different things.
It could be rupturing your Achilles early on a Monday morning when your calendar is overflowing with obligations. Or it might be the unanticipated concession from a client in a deposition. It could be a sudden downturn in our practice. Or maybe it’s having no childcare when our daughter comes down with the flu the morning we’re supposed to begin that critical deposition.
Whatever it is, we all have things appear in our lives from time to time that totally disrupt our plans. When that occurs, how will we respond? Will we become mired in frustration, anger and helplessness? Or will we open ourselves to the possibilities that come with each challenge, and find in the obstacle itself, fuel to move forward in a new direction?
I confess, it’s not always easy. But I’m going to ponder it a little more closely.
After all, it seems I now have some extra time on my hands.