One gets the sense that Seneca, like many smart and active people, was often frustrated by other people. It is inevitable that someone like him—someone creating art, actively participating in government, managing properties, etc—would have regularly found his interest and his will thwarted. Perhaps a neighbor opposed some changes he was making to his land. Or an intriguing enemy at the palace sought to undermine him with the emperor. Maybe his brother jostled for an inheritance. Maybe he bumped into a rude person in the street.
These are timeless and common occurrences. And, quite naturally, they are prone to make us angry—especially if we impute the least charitable motivations on the other party. My neighbor is trying to screw me over. So and so wants my job. My brother is up to his old tricks. This guy is a selfish jerk.
When we think this way, we get angry. It’s hard not to. Which is why Seneca—from experience—said that we have to resist. Instead, we should try to go through life like a lawyer…or rather like a public defender. We must, he said, “plead the case of the absent defendant despite our own interests.” That is, really take the time to think about what is motivating other people. Take the time to act as if we are trying to help them escape punishment from the judge and jury that is the emotional and vindictive part of our mind (Oh, he really just wants what’s best for everyone. My brother doesn’t know better. This guy didn’t mean to bump into me—he’s just having a hard day). Don’t just fight to see the worst, fight to see their side.
When we do this, when we give people the benefit of the doubt—the presumption of innocence instead of the presumption of guilt and ill-motives—everything relaxes. We can forgive. We can find common ground. We can focus on what is actually important…our own behavior.
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