Monday over Coffee: Be Gentle

Need a Word of Encouragement?

Be Gentle


Even with the encouraging news on the Covid front and the reopening of more businesses and schools and the reconnection of friends and family, there’s still no shortage of things that tend to upset us these days. Many in our world seem to have a vested interest in keeping us anxious and at each other’s throats on a wide variety of subjects. Instead of weighing in on any particular matter of public controversy, I’d rather offer something of interest I’ve tried to absorb since being introduced to the idea a few weeks ago. It has helped me, at least to some degree, reframe how I enter my day with respect to the strong likelihood that either in person, online, or simply on the news, I’ll encounter someone who thinks about things differently than I do. I’ll expand on this, but it can be summarized in two little words: Expect it.


Maria Popova was born in Bulgaria. She’s an editor and author of two children’s books and each week writes a blog called Brain Pickings, which she initially sent weekly to seven close friends in 2006. Now, fifteen years later, it drops in my email box, along with well over a million others each Sunday morning. I highly recommend it as it not only features beautiful art and compelling philosophical and cultural ideas, but she often pairs things eclectically: like a meditative poem with a scientific treatise about gardening, or a literary excerpt from Tolstoy or Maya Angelou cross-referenced with a recent NASA astronomical discovery. 


While Popova apparently has many influences, one of her favorites seems to be Marcus Aurelius, who ruled Rome from 161 to 180 AD. Marcus’s most famous work, Meditations, was deeply influenced by his own Stoicism and is composed of a series of notes written to himself. These notes set out how a person might pragmatically approach not only life’s public duties and professional challenges, but also one’s personal relationships and, in the end, simply think of things rightly. It could also be said that in just this short volume of interior dialogues, Marcus makes an early contribution to what counselors now call Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.


Popova recently quoted from Meditations in one of her Sunday morning offerings entitled, The Stoic Antidote to Frustration: Marcus Aurelius on How to Keep Your Mental Composure and Emotional Equanimity. In the quote, Marcus gives us a glimpse into how he used a “reframing technique” to start his day:


When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly…But I have seen the beauty of good and the ugliness of evil and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own— not of the same blood or birth, but of the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine…We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower…To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.


In his wisdom, almost 2000 years ago, this philosopher-king was suggesting to us that we must start our days expecting to encounter people who don’t see things the way we do. Whenever a person’s behavior brings offense or resentment, he suggests we immediately ask, “So is it possible for there to be no such people in the world?” “It isn’t,” he answers back, “and you should therefore stop demanding the impossible.” That is to say, don’t be surprised or taken aback by this. 


Instead, this most remarkable of Roman emperors points out that the Stoical response to such inevitable daily episodes is to widen the circle of your concern for the other, seeing them as part of an extended single divine family, and then place the blame on yourself if you had a negative reaction. “After all,” he writes, “you had the resources, in the form of your ability to think rationally, to appreciate that he was likely to commit that fault, yet you forgot it and are now surprised that he did exactly that.” As soon as you recall all of this and realize that it’s impossible for flawed people not to exist, you’ll find it easier to be kinder to each such person. His meditation then ends with this advice to himself, and to us: “Be gentle,” he concludes. “Be gentle.”



It shouldn’t surprise me that I will encounter flawed people with what I might consider flawed ideas today. It’s a metaphysical certainty. But their flaws, if I think about it, are impressively similar to my own. Knowing this, may I be more gentle to everyone.


Greg Funderburk

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