One of the most interesting and personal parts of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is Book I, which consists entirely of his private gratitudes to friends and family. Marcus was particularly grateful and in awe of Antoninus, his adopted father and the Emperor of Rome who preceded Marcus. He points out the man’s “compassion,” his “constancy to friends–never getting up up with them,” and his unfailing dedication to the empire. He also writes that Antoninus “never exhibited rudeness, lost control of himself, or turned violent. No one ever saw him sweat.”
These are all virtues verified by the historical record. But the most intriguing remark is Marcus’s reference to the way that Antoninus “accepted the customs agent’s apology at Tusculum.” We have no other details about this exchange, but given what we know about Marcus and Antoninus, here’s a guess: there was probably a miscommunication between the customs agent and the emperor. Perhaps the agent spoke to the emperor imprudently, or perhaps he failed to recognize who he was dealing with and accidently gave this powerful man a hard time. Given that Marcus praises Antoninus’s lack of arrogance, it stands to reason that he responded to this inconvenience kindly and forgivingly, that he didn’t get upset, and instead was understanding and respectful, even if he hadn’t been treated with the proper respect himself.
While the rest of us aren’t emperors, we should do well to remember this example. How we treat the people we encounter in the course of an ordinary day matters–the waiters, the toll booth operators, the customer service representatives, the police officers, the cleanup crews. These people make the world go round. And yes, they are also human. They have bad days. They make mistakes. They don’t know who you are or what problems their policies or decisions might cause in your life, and even if they did they usually have very little decision-making power to change them anyway. Getting upset, yelling, treating them like dirt? This is embarrassing. To you. And something no other person should have to put up with.
We could all get better at this. Especially us Stoics who claim to hold ourselves to high standards. Some people get so angry about issues with their orders with the Daily Stoic store it seems like they might pop a vein. On the one hand, it’s understandable. They paid for something. They want it. Makes total sense. But if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, would you spend all this time getting upset that your memento mori coin was delayed? If you really believed in amor fati, would a package caught in customs or a slightly damaged order be that big of a problem? If you were actually combatting your ego, would you dare speak to anyone in the tone you speak to the faceless person on the other side of your customer service complaint? Especially to a small little operation, not some faceless multinational conglomerate.
The answer to all this is no. The Stoic in us should strive to be like Antoninus–that is, to not be rude, to not lose control, and to be forgiving and tolerant when things don’t go your way. Everyone has bad days, we all have limits, but we should do our best to always treat everyone we encounter with respect, even if they frustrate us, make mistakes, or keep us from getting what we want. Most likely, they’re trying their best too. And if we remember that, it will help us keep our cool and get closer to being the kind of person we’d want to be if any of those calls “recorded for training purposes” were ever made public.
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