When we look at the lives of a great man like Marcus Aurelius or a great woman like the Catholic activist Dorothy Day, it’s easy to be intimidated. They seemed to always know what to do and seemed to always do it regardless of the stakes. It’s easy to be discouraged when you hold their examples up as inspiration—it seems impossible to live up to their standards (and easy to forget, of course, that they didn’t always live up to their own standards).
The same is true for Stoicism as a whole. The philosophy is so aspirational, so idealistic that, given the flaws we each carry, the idea of even coming close to approaching the life of a sage feels ridiculous. But what if that was the wrong way to think about it?
What if instead of trying to be some unassailable force of moral good in the world, each of us just tried to be a little bit better whenever we saw an opportunity? What kind of cumulative difference would that end up making?
An example: Anyone who has bought one of the coins in our DailyStoic Store over the last couple years might remember that they came wrapped in a thin plastic sleeve. A few months ago it occurred to us that this was producing a lot of unnecessary plastic in the world for not a lot of benefit—so we asked the mint to stop shipping them that way. Was this some transformational improvement to the world? Was it some shockingly selfless sacrifice? Of course not. But it was an improvement in our operations that reduced our ecological impact a tiny bit. We got better where we could.
Everyone has opportunities to do this. Opportunities to put their phone down and really listen to someone who needs to be heard. Opportunities to contribute some spare change to a worthy cause. Opportunities to let their employees go home early from work. Opportunities to pass on an unnecessary cross country flight or to pick up some trash or to hold the door open for someone.
These are little actions. They won’t make you a sage or a saint. But they will make a little improvement to the world and to yourself. And if we all did them—and if we all did them more often—they would add up to real transformation.
P.S. This was originally sent on April 4th, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.
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