“Kindness is invincible, but only when it’s sincere, with no hypocrisy or faking. For what can even the most malicious person do if you keep showing kindness and, if given the chance, you gently point out where they went wrong— right as they are trying to harm you?” — Marcus Aurelius
It’s a fact of life that we will encounter rude people. It happens every day. People cut in line. People speak to other other people like they are a piece of shit. People lie and take credit for your work. Not only will this happen, but many times there will be no consequences for this.
They’ll have to wait in line less than you. They might get promoted ahead of you after taking credit for that work. And when we see this, we are tempted to respond in a couple ways:
-Use it as an excuse
-Begin to plot our revenge.
None of these reactions are Stoic. More important, none of these reactions reduce rude behavior in the world either.
“You can hold your breath until you’re blue in the face,” Marcus Aurelius said, “and they’re going to keep on doing it.”
So how does a Stoic respond to rude or selfish behavior?
First, they don’t take it personal. Because it wasn’t personal. At one point Marcus wrote to himself to not be “irritated at people’s smell or bad breath.” What’s the point? He asked himself. They aren’t doing it on purpose—if a person has armpits or a mouth, occasionally they will smell. The same goes for someone who was a jerk. We all have that part of us, sometimes it bothers other people. When he’d experience a shameless or difficult person, he’d say: “Is a world without shamelessness possible? No. Then don’t ask the impossible. There have to be shameless people in the world. This is one of them.”
Second, when a Stoic experiences rudeness, they ask themselves how they’ve actually been harmed by it. Someone calls you a name, someone speaks to you with a tone—none of that is nice. But what have the actual consequences been? Really none. It’s all in your head. As Epictetus would say, “another person will not do you harm unless you wish it; you will be harmed at just that time at which you take yourself to be harmed.”
Third, the Stoic resists the impulse to respond to rudeness in kind. They don’t hate a hater, they don’t treat a jerk like a jerk. Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself that “the best way to avenge yourself is to not be like that.” Another Stoic, Seneca, put it this way, “How much better to heal than seek revenge from injury. Vengeance wastes a lot of time and exposes you to many more injuries than the first that sparked it.”
As Marcus and Seneca both wrote, the proper response— indeed the best revenge— is to exact no revenge at all. If someone treats you rudely and you respond with rudeness, you have not done anything but prove to them that they were justified in their actions. If you meet other people’s dishonesty with dishonesty of your own, guess what? You’re proving them right— now everyone is a liar.
Of course, it is not only in the Stoic writings that we see a call to the high road in response to rudeness and meanness. The Bible says that when you can do something nice and caring to a hateful enemy, it is like “heap[ing] burning coals on his head.” The expected reaction to hatred is more hatred. When someone says something pointed or mean today, they expect you to respond in kind— not with kindness. When that doesn’t happen, they are embarrassed. It’s a shock to their system— it makes them and you better.
So let’s seek to be better than the things that disappoint or hurt us. Let’s try to be the example we’d like others to follow. It’s awful to be a cheat, to be selfish, to feel the need to inflict pain on our fellow human beings. Meanwhile, living morally and well is quite nice.
And remember, most rudeness, meanness, and cruelty are a mask for deep-seated weakness. Kindness in these situations is only possible for people of great strength. You have that strength. Use it.
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