“Stop drifting. You’re not going to re-read your Brief Comments, your Deeds of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the commonplace books you saved for your old age. Sprint for the finish. Write off your hopes, and if your well-being matters to you, be your own savior while you can.” — MARCUS AURELIUS
Around the same time I wrote about my Morning Pages ritual (the daily practice of writing 3 pages every morning upon waking), I was also working my way through Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. If you’ve ever read Meditations, you may have thought:
Wow, this guy is wise. And/or,
Dude’s got some crazy-ass shit goin’ on in that head.
Or if you’re like me, it was a little bit of both, topped with an I love you and thank you for making me feel better about not having 100% of my life — AKA ‘all my shit’ — sorted out.
Marcus, if you’re ill acquainted, was once emperor of the Roman Empire. His journal of ramblings, musings and maxims from mostly 170-180 AD became known as Meditations, now considered a bedrock tome and entry drug into the Stoicism philosophy. Calling Marcus the godfather of Stoicism wouldn’t be accurate (it was born hundreds of years before Marcus was), but with how accessible and popular Meditations remains in present day, he’s certainly one of its loudest cheerleaders.
(This article is not a deep dive into Marcus or Stoicism, but if that’s what you’re after, Ryan Holiday has written a fantastic article about them both.)
In reading Meditations, I found a kindred spirit in Marcus. Sure, he had to squelch a handful more revolts than I have (so far), and has at least one more documented world empire under his belt than me. But in a way, Marcus feels like my brotha from another millennia. Let me explain.
Having practiced both meditation (irregularly) and writing Morning Pages (regularly), I noticed:
It feels oddly like meditating, these Morning Pages.
From what I understand about meditation, your task is not to remove the thoughts passing in the air above you — it’s simply to observe them. Watch them run reckless like children in the playground of your mind. Catch yourself watching them, but don’t try to catch the little brats themselves. Just quietly bring yourself back to center. Do not fret and do not cling. Whether you love them or hate them, let them go.
If meditation plays high in the heavens, then Morning Pages live firmly down here on Earth. They’re our soldiers on the ground with a single task: pull those thoughts from the ether and plop them onto the page. Grab hold of the noisy crazies, the unfinished business, the self-flagellation, the un-lived lives, the half-assed dreams and the half-baked thoughts — and write ’em down.
With Morning Pages, your thoughts are no longer phantom, formless beasts. They’re real as ink and staring right back at you on the damn page.
“You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts. Is helping others less valuable to you? Not worth your effort?” — MARCUS AURELIUS
The real, non-emperor-like self-scrutinizing Marcus conducts on himself in Meditations struck me as odd, but human and refreshing. I dug a little deeper:
- Marcus wrote Meditations in Greek.
- In Greek, Meditations is Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν, literally meaning “[that which is] to himself.”
- According to Meditations translator Gregory Hays, “not only was it not written for publication, but Marcus clearly had no expectation that anyone but himself would ever read it.”
- Marcus wrote Meditations in the most challenging, final years of his life, battling the Germans and Sarmatians in the Marcomannic Wars.
- French scholar Pierre Hadot describes Marcus’s notes as “spiritual exercises” written to provide a brief release from the stress and confusion of everyday life.
Here’s a thought: Is Meditations just Marcus Aurelius’s Morning Pages?
After all, Meditations does remind me of how my Morning Pages might read if all the whining and random To-Dos were removed and I was about seven million times wiser.
And could, after the passing of 200 or so years, my Morning Pages maybe possibly perhaps become something of a Meditations 2.0?
“Consider the lives led once by others, long ago, the lives to be led by others after you, the lives led even now, in foreign lands. How many people don’t even know your name. How many will soon have forgotten it. How many offer you praise now — and tomorrow, perhaps, contempt. That to be remembered is worthless. Like fame. Like everything.”
Touché, Marcus. A fun thought, but not one to dwell long in I suppose.
Either way, the raw honesty inside Marcus’s pages hits my heart just right. It reveals him as a fellow human being trying to make sense of the trials and tribulations of life. The life card he was dealt was “Emperor,” but that seemed to matter little to the turmoil in his brain and the yearning in his heart.
Marcus, it seems, was trying to figure his shit out, just like the rest of us. And if one of the most revered leaders of the civilized world was trying to figure his shit out back in the day, then maybe I’m/we’re doing alright.
When Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit.com, stepped on stage to speak to a crowded hall at 99u’s Pop-Up School in NYC, a slide behind him in giant letters read:
“I have no idea what I’m doing and that’s awesome.”
If the creator of one of the most popular websites on the internet has no idea what he’s doing, what about the rest of us?
Maybe Oliver Burkeman put it best in Everyone is totally just winging it, all the time:
“We’re all mini-New York Timeses or White Houses, energetically projecting an image of calm proficiency, while inside we’re improvising in a mad panic. Yet we forget (especially in an era of carefully curated Facebook profiles and suchlike) that everyone else is doing the same thing. The only difference is that they think it’s you who’s truly competent.”
What separates the Alexises and the Marcuses, the humans who pursue worthy projects and grow enormous empires, from those that do not?
Surely, they must have their shit “all figured out” before they got started?
Here’s a secret: they didn’t.
And here’s another: they still don’t.
Maybe we’re hesitant to blaze new trails because we’re not entirely sure we can pull it off. We lack the skills, knowhow, connections, money, and certainly the confidence we feel like we need to get started. So we risk never starting. Or we give up when things get rough. Especially if the things we hope to do — start a business, move into a new industry, spearhead a movement we care about, build a new career or life from scratch — is something we’ve never, ever done before.
This is logically sound. But here’s another thought: maybe everyone’s shit is just as figured out (or not) as ours.
If you’re feeling lost or low; doubtful or drifting; stuck, sucky, or wobbly; if you just can’t seem to “figure your shit out,” consider this:
Most people don’t exactly know what they’re doing.
(The honest and authentic ones will let you in on that.)
We’re all just figuring it out together.
Humans have been figuring their shit out since forever ago.
Wobbles are part of the path. Welcome to life. This is part of the deal for being allowed to play down here.
“Concentrate every minute like a Roman…on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can — if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.” — MARCUS AURELIUS
In other words, you’re exactly where you’re meant to be. Stop questioning yourself, beating yourself up, or worrying that you’re doing it wrong.
Sure, you still have work to do. We all do.
But more and most importantly: you’re in good company.
Even Roman emperors are still figuring their shit out.