January 20, 2017
The Stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations: “The universe is change. Life is opinion.”
I read that quote on November 9, the day after the 2016 U.S. election, when Donald Trump, who pollsters said had a very small chance of victory, won. The stock market didn’t think he’d win, so it was falling.
Ironically, those words from centuries ago were startlying apt. Americans had elected Trump because he promised change, startling the whole world with their choice.
Some Americans are hopeful that things now finally will change for the better. Others see only the prospect for worse. None of us know what will happen.
What do you do when there are deep political disagreements within your family or close circle? What will happen to those relationships? Remember the second half of the quote, “Life is opinion.” It’s an invitation to be less certain that your opinions about other people are worth clinging to.
Maybe you’re thrilled that the people with the Ivy League degrees like Hillary Clinton actually didn’t get their way this time. She reminds you of your sister, who always thought she was smarter and more virtuous than you, and is thunderstruck that Clinton didn’t win. You can see the contempt for you in her eyes. You feel anger and contempt for her arrogance.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean we accept bad behavior or refuse to see it. But people are happier and healthier when they don’t dwell on judgments or hard feelings. Instead, we can think about how to bring joy into our own worlds, though our own responses and choices.
As you’ll hear over and over, we need the country to come together to decide on policies that actually address the discontent that the election expressed so loudly. How can you contribute? You can start in your own circle, not necessarily by discussing politics, but by finding ways to live peaceably with each other.
Remember that “The universe is change.” Sometimes we are disappointed in each other because we didn’t realize that the other person was changing. Or you hoped someone you care about was coming over to your views, and then you realized it wasn’t happening now. You can’t control those changes in others.
Epictetus, another ancient Stoic, inspired the well-known Serenity prayer, “God grant me the wisdom to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The way he put it was, “Some things are in our control, while others are not. We control our opinions, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything of our own doing. We don’t control… everything not of our own doing.”
We can’t control other people’s opinions — only our own. Maybe your father and brother both voted for Trump and dismissed his comments about women as “locker room talk.” Your husband does, too. Listening to them might make you furious and tempted to fume or shout “You men are such pigs!” Arguments rarely change minds. You might want to express yourself as a way to get closer to them — but how often do people respond well to insults and anger?
Let's say your father complains about Mexicans taking away jobs. Your response might be to have a talk with him about his finances. What about yours? Do you need to save more or find a way to boost your own job prospects? Whenever somebody particularly bugs me, I ask myself whether I’ve got a problem in that area myself. Our own faults look much worse in someone else.
Let’s not fight with our family, friends, and neighbors. Instead, let’s all do what we can to thrive in a changeable universe.