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You Can Shut Your Ears

Daily Stoic Emails

Leading up to the German Blitz, it was said that in London you could feel the anxiety in the air. Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, would have been particularly high strung. A debt payment was due in a month, and he had no money. His son’s gambling and drinking problems were getting worse. There were the blackout rules, the strict rationing, and the endless cacophony of noises and disturbances as construction crews worked to buttress London against attack.

It was during all this that Churchill went for a walk, as Erik Larson writes in his thrilling book The Splendid and the Vile. As he crossed paths with a newsboy cheerfully whistling, Churchill let out some tension. “Stop that whistling!” he snapped at the boy. “Why should I?” the boy said. “Because I don’t like it and it’s a horrible noise.” “Well, you can shut your ears, can’t you?” Churchill was furious. His face flushed red with anger. He kept walking and then repeated to himself with laughter, “You can shut your ears, can’t you?”

It’s true!

As Marcus Aurelius said, you don’t have to turn this into something. You can sharpen the selectivity of your eyes and ears. You can choose to let the whistling newsboy drift right on by. You can choose to pretend you didn’t just read that Tweet. You can choose not to remember that you were even hit, as Cato did after being attacked at the baths.

All the rudeness, all the things you take offense at, all the things that frustrate you, all the sounds you hate, all the writers whose opinions make you angry—you can tune it all out. You can stay above the noise. You can not have an opinion. You can shut your ears. When anger begins to flush your face, you can turn it into laughter. Try it. It’s life-changing.