Meditations on Meditations: Adversity (4:49)

Be like the headland, on which the waves break constantly, which still stands firm, while the foaming waters are put to rest around it.

‘It is my bad luck that this has happened to me.’ On the contrary, say, ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without getting upset, neither crushed by the present nor afraid of the future.’

This kind of event could have happened to anyone, but not everyone would have borne it without getting upset.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.49

Last week, as most likely completely passed you by, was Stoic Week. This passage from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was their final, triumphant selection.

The grand idea is classic Stoicism. Epictetus, slave turned scholar, was a great influence on Marcus and he put the idea thusly:

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.

Epictetus, Enchiridion

It was words like these that inspired Ryan Holiday’s bestseller Stoic self-help book The Obstacle is the Way. The obstacle you feared would stop you? It’s the best thing that ever could have happened.

‘It is my bad luck that this has happened to me.’ On the contrary, say, ‘It is my good luck…’

I’ve clipped the end of that sentence because it downplays the significance of what Marcus is saying. It’s not just that you’ve borne the ‘misfortune’ without getting upset; you’ve taken the ‘setback’ and turned it to your advantage.

As he writes in another meditation:

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

The past is gone; the future is a mystery: Stoics deal with the present alone. Therefore, this “setback” can’t possibly be a terrible thing – it is the only thing. The most sensible thing to do would be to react in the best possible way, considering these new circumstances.

Note to self: Very rarely is the best possible reaction to throw a hissy fit and moan about how things should have turned out.

Even at their most obstructive and devastating, setbacks become an opportunity to show the Stoic virtues of courage, wisdom, moderation and justice. With such practice you can only become a better person. This absolute stinker of an obstacle is your friend and teacher.

Wildly optimistic? It sounds like it, but it’s perfectly rational, irrefutably logical and really rather useful.

Petty examples from recent life: You badly injure your knee when training for a half marathon. You get dumped with a load of extra work, when you’re already running into a deadline. You get sick on the day of a big party.

Two options:

1. Oh, well, it’s fucked then. Might as well give up.

Or…

2. Hmm. Okay. Well that’s happened. How can I turn this around?

Which is the better mindset when faced with adversity? Which is more likely to result in growth and resolution? Which is likely to make you happier, more content with your lot?

I’d say at least 50% of the time I hone in on option one. If contemplating the Stoics can tilt the tendency in the other direction by even a few percentage points, then I’m sold.


This reminds me of the work of Carol Dweck on the two motivational mindsets of approach and avoidance. The avoidance mindsetted person deals with problems as they’d wish them to be; the approach mindsetted person deals with problems as they are.

3 thoughts on “Meditations on Meditations: Adversity (4:49)”

  1. Actuallly I have really enjoyed this post. I read your post on Vipassana before going recently and it had some useful stuff. I am writing my own blog on it (and yes I took a notebook and pen in). But many of these stoicism ideas ring far more true than Goenka did..

    Many thanks

    1. Ha! Yes, I would agree. Stoicism is fantastically logical and practical, in a way that Vipassana simply isn’t. Stoicism might not capture the whole of human experience – for me it somehow misses that ecstatic part perhaps found more in Epicureanism – but it’s very hard to argue with and does an excellent job so far as it goes. Thanks for your kind words. Drop me a link to your blog post when you’ve finished it – I’d be very interested to read it. And well done on smuggling a pen inside! You’re more courageous than I am!

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