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They Punish Themselves First

Daily Stoic Emails

You get a glimpse of some of the things people do. The way they treat a waiter at a restaurant. Trying to board an airplane with a mesh mask during a pandemic and then throwing a fit about it. Cheating on their taxes. Pushing their work off on their colleagues and then filing bogus lawsuits after they get fired.

Unsurprisingly, these people existed in their own way in the ancient world. In fact, Marcus writes in the opening of Meditations about the inevitability of witnessing such things on a daily basis. So how does a Stoic respond to these outrages, big and small? Then and now?

First, with a reminder to themselves that, as unacceptable as these behaviors are, the primary victim is, as always, also the perpetrator. It’s not fun to be one of these people. Their avarice is not enjoyable, because they are constantly hungry for more. Their ignorance is not bliss, because their existence is in the dark. It is daily torture—whether they fully understand it or not. We have to be wise enough to see the bigger picture: Even as they hurt others, they are hurting themselves. They can’t see it, but we can. We can see the potential they are depriving themselves of. We can see the hell they’re living in.

The second response is to use these people as a mirror. In their behavior and their personalities, perhaps we can see some of our own traits we don’t like. We can be reminded why we have the principles we have. We can see the mistakes of others and learn to not make them ourselves.

Only after we have taken these first two steps, can we begin to think about the third step (which may well not be in our power): holding them accountable.