When you wake up in the morning say to yourself:
There is a high likelihood that people will frustrate me today and, regardless of my best efforts to be thoughtful and cooperative, I will likely frustrate others as well. This is because no matter how good we are as people we will inevitably have differences of opinion, conflicts of goals, and personal fallibility that make us frustrating to one another. We each belong to a shared, mutually interdependent, species and we will each thrive to our greatest potential only to the extent that we all can find ways to work through our differences and mutually empower each other. We each lose when our relationships devolve into counter-productive efforts to dominate one another.
So, I must always remind myself that the diversity of perspectives is better for the discovery of the truth and patiently participate in discussions aimed at reconciling differences in perspective with others as part of my own pursuit of truth. I must always remind myself to seek fair methods of conflict resolution when others and I cannot both get what we want without the others’ cooperation. I must resist the natural cognitive bias to interpret others’ motives in the worst ways possible while always rationalizing my own. I must make a concerted effort to recognize and appreciate all the good people do for me and for others, rather than disproportionately pay attention to what people do when it is immoral or frustrating. I must remember to actively develop my compassion for others’ struggles to maintain their internal picture of themselves as good people. I must remember that most wrongdoing is more attributable to ignorance or weakness than to malice. I must remember that even the best intentioned people fail to live up to their own ideals. When responding to their mistakes, I must not add to their shame if they already feel it, but find ways to encourage them in their own pursuit of the good.
And if they do not realize their (or their attitudes or their views or institutions that they support) are hurting me or others or themselves, I should broach the subject with them in constructive ways that respect all their efforts to be a good person, rather than imply that I think that their mistakes reveal malignant motives or negligent indifference. I must remember that often people have bad ideas that makes them misinterpret what is good or are clouded by strength of desire to genuinely misperceive a lesser good for a greater good. In such cases, my first recourse should be to reason with them about the rightness of their perceptions, by going over with them the consequences of their priorities and choices and by alerting to them to any inconsistencies in their thinking.
I should feel anger at wrongdoing and injustice for this is as a crucial way by which I can comprehend their badness, become dispositionally averse to them, empathize with those who suffer on account of the bad, and find motivation to proactively correct it. But I also must not allow anger to consume me, make me miserable, make me hateful, or make me destructive. I must only express my anger judiciously and constructively. While it is appropriate to feel anger at what is unjust, I should only express as much anger, and at as much intensity, as is genuinely necessary to create a positive outcome. Wherever possible I should direct my anger at situations, rather than at individuals. I must not overestimate the degree to which particular individuals’ characters, rather than deleterious social structures or ideologies are the real deserving targets of my frustrations. I must not force individual wrongdoers to bear the full brunt of my frustration with problems that stem from human psychology generally or from particular harmful beliefs or institutions. I must work to counter these pernicious forces by conscripting the wrongdoer in the war against them, rather than confusing the wrongdoer for the enemy.
So when someone wrongs me, I should focus my complaints on the wrongness of the action, not the supposed wrongness of the person him or herself. I should not treat them like the action is an outgrowth of their true character or intentions. I should not treat them like they are irredeemably bad or incapable of learning. If I push them into seeing the question of whether what they did was wrong as a question of whether they are themselves a good person or not, this will only backfire and make them defensive and temporarily impervious to reason. My priority must be communicating persuasively, not venting cathartically. I must remain patient with people’s sincere beliefs that they have done nothing wrong even when it seems obvious to me that they have. I must continue to reason towards agreement rather than give up on it prematurely. I must also listen carefully to their counterarguments first to discover whether I may learn something from them and only secondarily to figure out what requires refutation. I must accept that I can be persuasive even if I do not get on the spot acknowledgments from others that I am right. I must respect people’s intellectual consciences, their right to walk away still disagreeing, and to process the points made during disputes on their own without pressure from others.
And through others’ provocations and through my own self-initiated reexaminations, I should constantly reassess my justifications for my own beliefs about what is good and bad, both in priorities and in means to their accomplishment, in order to make sure that I myself am not in error, and scrupulously revise them without fear of embarrassment for appearing “inconsistent” should I change my mind. I must spend more time thinking about how to improve my own views than railing about other people’s intellectual flaws, false beliefs, or moral failures.
And, above all, I must commit myself to doing the right thing and cultivating my virtues, irrespective of those I deal with will adequately reciprocate or whether my particular virtuous efforts in a particular endeavor will have the maximally best effect. I must scrupulously stick to doing what will make me the best person I can be and what has the best odds of creating the greater good in the fairest manner. I cannot control the outcomes. I can only control my own efforts and make sure they are the best they can be. So I must.
Finally, I must realistically accept that there is a segment that will never be persuaded to see reason or who will act from genuine malice. In the most extreme cases, these will be incorrigibly abusive people who suffer from severe personality disorders or who are sociopaths or psychopaths. In such cases, I must remind myself I have minimal reason to blame myself for any failures to get through to them. I have every rational reason to tune out their efforts to say things that hurt me, as I can understand its faulty source. I can remind myself that psychological maladies, largely not of their choosing, corrupt corrupt such people’s abilities to understand or implement moral reasoning, and adjust my expectations of them accordingly, muster compassion, and deflect their attempts to hurt me. I must protect myself from letting them erode my happiness or threaten my emotional or physical safety (or that of others).
This Camels With Hammers Meditation is part of my series aimed at revisiting and revising stoicism. In yesterday’s post in the series I critically analyzed the first meditation of Book 2 of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. Above, I have proposed a meditation of my own that I think preserves, supplements, and develops Aurelius’s wisdom, while correcting for what I consider to be his egregious errors and deficiencies. If you like what you’ve been reading, consider joining me for my live, interactive, 1 month long Stoic Ethics class in February 2016. I am also starting a brand new Ethics of War class later in January 2016, which will run throughout the winter and spring. I also offer philosophical advice sessions for those who want help figuring out the kinds of philosophical problems that come up in their lives, which posts like this one are meant to address. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule such a session or to sign up for one of my philosophy classes. To learn more about how my classes work or to learn about more of my course offerings, click on any of the banners below. I schedule new classes whenever I have students interested in them, so if you want it I will teach it! Just let me know as soon as you’re ready.
Full table of contents of posts in my Revisiting and Revising Stoicism series:
Revisiting The Stoics, Towards Revising Stoicism
“People Will Be Terrible. Deal With It.”
CWH Revised Stoic Meditation #1: On Frustrations with Other People
Which Motive Worsens A Bad Action More: Desire or Anger?
In February 2016 I will teach a one month long course on Stoic Ethics. Get full information on the course here and write me at email@example.com if you want to sign up so that I can schedule the class’s time around your availability. To learn about more of my class offerings and how my classes run, click on any of the banners below. This month (January 2016) I will also be starting a new Ethics of War class.