Any person capable of angering you becomes your master;
he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him.”
As I watch the anger and hatred unfolding in the daily news and I try to make some sense of it all, the above quote from ancient Rome struck me as something important to consider.
Political news has dominated some recent conversations for many people. The parties and politicians; the things they say and do or don’t do; the perceived right or wrong of these actions and words are angrily debated on all sides. Yet, there seems to be no point to any of it other than “being right” and constantly asserting this. Debating with those with whom one disagrees seems to quickly degenerate into name-calling. Discussion with like-minded people is essentially mutual complaining with little new learning. And almost all of this is embedded in an atmosphere of anger.
Ancient wisdom from various cultures, both east and west, is based on a simple premise…know thyself. Further, it is thought that this knowledge can lead to something crucial to the task of living a good life, namely self-control, or mastery. If your emotions are constantly buffeted by external forces, clearly those forces are in charge of your experiences. You are not the master of your inner life.
I imagine that most of us prefer to think that we are in charge of ourselves. The thought that someone else’s behaviour can control my inner life is abhorrent to me, yet I must admit to experiencing those flashes of frustration upon reading a news headline or hearing an opinion I don’t like. But allowing those flashes to develop into full out anger is something else.
The political news is especially difficult in this regard because the reportage itself is laden with anger. Often, the main reason an article is written is for the author to express anger over the words or actions of a politician. This is particularly challenging for me because I often find myself at odds with almost everyone. (no I am not going to discuss my personal political views)
One’s inner life or experience is the crucial key to the quality of life. When I read the above quote from Epictetus, I was reminded of who is supposed to be the master of my inner life – me. Further, there is an associated sense of satisfaction in feeling I am in charge of myself. The idea that I am pulled this way and that by other people is not appealing. Am I not my own man?!
So I am more on guard when it comes to my reactions to news and views. Of course, this does not mean I don’t react inwardly. That would be a robot. But it does mean that I can take a step back from that reaction and witness it as an inner event that has appeared and will pass. I can experience my response to the news item somewhat as one would watch a movie. Most importantly, with practice, I can increase my mastery of these responses.
The bottom line is that there is a corresponding sense of pride and self-worth in not allowing others to control your emotional life. Mastery is a process, a work in progress. But the more you work at it, the better you will get. You will find yourself less disturbed and less likely to permit others to upset your equilibrium.
At the very least, you will be aware of who is the master of your inner life. Who would you prefer that be?