Marcus Aurelius was clearly torn about his fellow man. He was loving and kind and spoke repeatedly of serving the common good. He was also clearly frustrated and disappointed with the flaws of the people around him. Like many great men, he had trouble understanding that not everyone had his gifts, not all of them were capable of what he was capable of.
You can see in Meditations how he wrestled with these feelings. In the opening passage, he talks about just how obnoxious and annoying (and awful) the people he was likely to meet in the course of the upcoming day. And then, just as you think it can’t get any more depressing and dark, he turns around and reminds himself that they’re doing the best they can, and that it’s not their fault that they have been cut off from truth.
In the passage that inspired The Obstacle is the Way, Marcus is less forgiving. He talks about how the people who obstruct or bother us are “irrelevant”—how we can shut our minds off to them. It’s a theme that comes up a lot: People are a problem. People are weak. Push them away. You get the sense that he would have been hard to work for, hard to have as your father, hard to please—even for talented and committed people.
If only Marcus Aurelius could have heard the (fictional) advice from his adopted grandfather, Hadrian, that Marguerite Yourcenar writes into her prize-winning book Memoirs of Hadrian. “Our great mistake,” she has Hadrian say, “is to try to exact from each person virtues which he does not possess, and to neglect the cultivation of those which he has.” How much happier Marcus would have been had he been more able to see the good in people, and how much better a leader he could have been had he leaned into their strengths rather than disdained their weaknesses.
Each of us would benefit from that advice as well. We have to focus on what we can learn from other people. We have to focus on what is special and unique about them instead of zeroing in on the ways they are not as good as us. We have to be forgiving and patient, kind and appreciative. We have to engage with what they bring to the table, not lament the things they take from it. Then we have to work to make those people around us better…not write them off as hopeless and broken.