The single sentence I have found most useful in life is from Marcus Aurelius: “The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”
But my favorite quotation contains an inherent contradiction. If you cast a cold eye on things and see them for what they are, how on earth are you supposed to maintain an untroubled spirit?
It’s tricky balancing act, and you have to be careful you don’t tip off into worrisome musing on one side or seemingly sociopathic indifference on the other.
Just prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, in a television interview, former first lady Barbara Bush noted that she was untroubled by it all.
“But why should we hear about body bags, and deaths, and how many, what day it’s going to happen, and how many this and what do you suppose?” she told Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America. “Or, I mean, it’s, it’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?”
In one way, Barbara Bush was absolutely right — we must not permit negative thoughts to overwhelm us, particularly if they are about events largely out of our control. But the person who was determined to invade and occupy Iraq — justified, as we now know, entirely by lies — was her own son, and Barbara Bush’s ability to shrug off her own responsibility for the subsequent horror of that war is breathtaking in its amorality.
So how to remain untroubled by suffering, without being indifferent to it?
“One way is to recognize that we do have a choice in where we focus our attention,” wrote psychologist Jessica Grogan. “While it may be incredibly difficult to shift away from the negative, it may be less difficult to consciously choose to emphasize the positive.
“An adjunct to this attention shift is the technique, applied most notably by Hans Vaihinger and Alfred Adler, of ‘acting as if.’ This means, essentially, ‘acting as if’ the good things were bigger deals and the bad things were smaller deals.”
But while shifting focus to maintain calm, how to do we keep unpleasant realities in our awareness? Perhaps by consciously practicing empathy.
“Through empathy, you will see how our egos help to keep us separated as individuals instead of a collective consciousness,” wrote Gregg Prescott. “For example, many people are too detached from worldwide atrocities, such as famine and starvation in third world countries. They may think to themselves, ‘If it doesn’t affect me, then it doesn’t exist.’ What if it was YOU who was starving? Would you want others to know or care or would you prefer to have people say to themselves, ‘If it doesn’t affect me, then it doesn’t exist.’ The truth is that we are all in this together and if one person is suffering, then we all suffer.”
The image I kept coming back to is the surgeon, whose mission it is to relieve suffering and save lives. But to do that job effectively, he must be dispassionate, calm and controlled.
Untroubled by trouble, in other words.