Welcome back to Mid-Week Meditations, Lifehacker’s weekly dip into the pool of stoic wisdom, and a guide to using its waters to reflect on and improve your life.
This week’s selection comes from Marcus Aurelius. In Meditations, 9.40, he suggests we stop praying for the things we want to happen, and work our problems from a different angle:
One man prays: ‘How can I sleep with that woman?’ Your prayer is: ‘How can I lose the desire to sleep with her?’ Another prays: ‘How can I be rid of that man?’ You pray: ‘How can I stop wanting to be rid of him?’ Another: ‘How can I save my little child?’ You: ‘How can I learn no to fear his loss?’ And so on. Give all your prayers this turn, and observe what happens.
Here’s another translation:
Try praying differently, and see what happens: Instead of asking for ‘a way to sleep with her,’ try asking for ‘a way to stop desiring to sleep with her.’ Instead of ‘a way to get rid of him,’ try asking for ‘a way to not crave his demise.’ Instead of ‘a way to not lose my child,’ try asking for ‘a way to lose my fear of it.’
What It Means
Instead of praying for certain outcomes in your life, pray for freedom from desire, anger, envy, and fear so that you can handle anything that comes your way. So many of life’s troubles are out of our control, so stop casting out hopes and take control of your life.
What to Take from It
Even if you don’t pray to a god, we all pray for outcomes in one way or another. We all whisper “Please…” in times of need, hoping fortune will look our way. But gods or not, Aurelius believes we’re better off taking charge and asking for things within our control. He says:
But you might say: ‘The gods have put these things in my own power.’ Is it not then better to use your own power in freedom rather than show a servile and supine concern for what you cannot control?
Indeed, when you pray for strength, resilience, and the ability to navigate life’s stormy waters, you call upon yourself just as much as you call upon an unseen deity (“Give all your prayers this turn, and observe what happens”). Your request changes from passive, waiting around for change, to active. You begin to think of ways you can help your prayer along. So, don’t ask for a better life, ask for the will to make your life better.
You can read Meditations in its entirety for free here.