There is no way around dealing with some people. There is no way to avoid every uncomfortable situation. Discourteous, dishonest, jealous, arrogant, and ungrateful people are everywhere: the thickheaded clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles, the loud co-worker across the aisle, your awful boss. Instead of dwelling on people you dislike until it devolves into animosity, take it from Dr. Michael Hart, Medical Director of Readytogo Clinic in London, Ontarioand avid enthusiast of stoic philosophy, focus on what you do control, accepting what you cannot change, and taking action only if logically necessary:
You Do Not Control Other People
The Roman Stoics, who dealt with a complicated, corrupt society, not unlike our own, found solace by recognizing that ultimately all anyone can control is their mind. You do not control how others act, but you do control how you respond to their actions. Everyone has their own lives and problems that you will never understand. What is frustrating to you might make perfect sense to them, or they may not know better.
Ever met someone who seems to be continuously followed by drama, who treats every minor problem as if it’s the end of the world? They illogically expect everything always to be perfect, meaning they cannot deal with life when it inevitably proves itself anything but perfect. You can choose to be better than this. You can choose to accept and ignore unimportant irritants.
Don’t Waste Energy on Hate
The last great Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, was the closest the Ancient world ever got to Plato’s ideal philosopher king. He was one of the few exceptions to the old maxim, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He had the power to destroy his enemies while wallowing in every pleasure available, but unlike so many other Roman emperors, Aurelius did not follow this decadent path.
Instead, Aurelius wrote that, “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.” Aurelius expected the worst, and prepared for the worst, trying to face every problem with patient, logical action.
Even though he wielded absolute power, Aurelius chose to treat people with respect because they are fellow human beings, whose motivations and actions he could never fully understand. He chose to be kind, even though he did not have to be. He focused on doing the best that he could do, instead of dwelling on what others do wrong.
Pick Your Battles
Accepting other people for who they are doesn’t mean you should be a pushover. Indeed, Marcus Aurelius was no pushover. He ruled Rome for 19 years; an eon compared to many of Rome’s notoriously assassination-prone leaders. He faced simultaneous conflict across the Roman Empire but successfully kept his enemies at bay with careful planning and delegation, focusing only on the most critical tasks first.
Though their actions are not in your control, trying to change other people’s behavior is sometimes necessary, but it must come from a place of logic. Your co-worker clicking their pen might be irritating, but it’s not exactly the end of the world. A neighbor playing loud music late into the morning is not the end of the world either, but it is a legitimate grievance if it prevents you from sleeping properly.
Act because it is logically necessary, not because anger overwhelmed you. Remain calm and focused. Remind yourself that the other person is a human, just like yourself and that they have flaws just as you do. There are things you do that infuriate other people that you don’t even know about, so be reasonable.
Ask yourself, “is this person doing something that is serious enough that I need to engage with it? Is it worth my mental effort?” If, upon examination, the problem doesn’t seem so large, consciously remind yourself to accept and ignore it when it comes up again. If the person must be confronted, ask yourself, “can I deal with this person, or is it a problem for someone with more control, such as my boss, human resources, or the police?” Make your decision and stick to it with logic and calm reason on your side, accepting the result as it may be.
Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Trans. Gregory Hays. New York: Modern Library, 2003
About Dr. Michael Hart:
Dr. Michael Hart in London, Ontario is the Founder, Medical Director, and Head Physician of Readytogo Clinic. Throughout his career, he has helped countless patients gain control of their health through non-traditional medical treatments. His passion for staying up to date on the latest in medicine has positioned him as one of Canada’s leaders in alternative healthcare.
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