People will piss you off in this life. That’s a given. You’ll get cut off on the highway. You’ll be spoken to rudely. You’ll get blown off. Someone will drop the ball. Someone’s screaming baby will keep you up all night on a plane.
But before you get upset, you should stop yourself. Because maybe there’s something you don’t quite know about the situation. Think of Brandon Matthews, who was about to make contact on a putt that could have secured him a spot in the PGA Open Championship, when a spectator screamed. Matthews threw up his hands in disbelief. The interruption cost him the tournament.
It turns out that the middle-aged man who had yelled had Down syndrome. In fact, he was such a fan of Matthews that he couldn’t contain his excitement for him. “I was frustrated at first,” Matthews said after, “because I didn’t understand the full circumstances behind it. But once I did, it was a pretty easy situation for me to handle.” He walked over to that fan and gave him his golf ball and a hug.
“Until you know their reasons,” Epictetus once said, “how do you know whether they have acted wrongly?” That moron who cut you off on the highway. What if he’s speeding to the hospital? That crying baby could be sick, or have two parents who are just as exhausted as you. The person who spoke rudely might be dying, they might have a broken heart.
The Stoics remind us to be empathetic. Almost no one does wrong on purpose, Socrates said. Maybe they just don’t know any better. Maybe, as Marcus said, they don’t know the difference between good and evil. Which is why we have to stop ourselves before we get angry. We have to think about their reasons, what’s going on with them.
It’s okay that you might struggle to control your snap judgments and emotional responses. The word Epictetus used was phantasiai, which appears more than two hundred times in his Discourses. But what matters is what you do after that wears off—what we do next. That’s what Brandon Matthews did—he reined himself in, he got his mind around the situation, and then he went and did something touching and kind.
And in that moment he was as great an athlete as there ever was—pulling off a far more impressive feat than sinking that putt. Which is why tournament officials of the Arnold Palmer Invitational offered Matthews a spot in the 120-player field—his first PGA Tour event.