tapestries of gratitude - inspired by the mature loveliness of Marcus Aurelius vision of indebtedness...
Apparently, I’m among the last philosophy-reading-humans alive to come to Marcus Aurelius. (Pretty much every friend I’ve checked with has been reading him for decades – so forgive me the enthusiasm of a new convert). Marcus seems kind of the philosophical equivalent to Leonard Cohen: people love the writing or ideas of other philosophers, but they love Marcus Aurelius.
Why do we respond so personally to Marcus? (almost everyone calls him Marcus) I know why I do: a sincerity and intimacy runs through his writing. He is so clearly first and foremost, a human just like us, striving to see reality clearly and encourage himself to live well.
It is so from the beginning: When we open the Meditations, we are introduced not to a grand idea or big question, but to a son, a father, a student, a subject of the gods. In his opening, Debts and Lessons, we meet him through his human origins: his relationships and how he perceives what they have brought to him. Aurelius speaks with the sobering humility of a middle-aged man taking stock.
This is Aurelius on what he absorbed from his paternal grandfather Marcus Annius Verus, who raised him after his father’s death:
Compassion. Unwavering adherence to decisions, once he’d reached them. Indifference to superficial honors. Hard work. Persistence.
Listening to anyone who could contribute to the public good.
His dogged determination to treat people as they deserved.
A sense of when to push and when to back off.
I do not recall another philosophy book that begins from such earthed places. Just a man, naming where he comes from. This informal, yet serious tone runs throughout his work, in how he addresses himself, in the sincerity of his efforts to guide himself, and is central to how deeply his words land in us, so many centuries later.
Marcus makes our acquaintance by declaring the human context of his life: the tribe he comes from, and the way he conceives of it. It is a peculiarly personal, naked introduction of self. I was so struck by the personal, unadorned tone of his writings that I wanted to check whether they had ever been intended for publication. No. Marcus was – as many of us are – writing to himself – in an effort to clarify the wisdom he could garner and the qualities he might hope to cultivate, based on what he treasured in those closest to him. A lot about his character is expressed both in the act of indebtedness and in what he identifies as being of value to him: a seriousness, a precision of perception, a breadth of care, a capacity for gratitude, and a generosity of that allows him to identify the best in others.
In essence, he is saying: ‘before I begin to speak to you, let me tell you where I have come from. In terms of others. In terms of my indebtedness.’ Except he isn’t because he didn’t know we would read the words. This is beautiful not just as an expression of gratitude, but because it reflects the truth that we are all amalgamations, highly dependent on the care and sacrifice and battles already endured by those who have gone before us. So, by beginning with an accumulation of ‘sources’ - kind of a human bibliography of himself – Marcus avoids the delusion that we are separate selves: that we achieve our insights or capacities alone.
By beginning his work this way, Marcus inadvertently debunks the myth of the independent philosopher of self-achieved genius. He does not claim any wisdom as a separate self; he voices origins. And as we take in his tapestry of indebtedness, we sense abundance: not necessarily an abundance of good fortune – though there is some of that - but an abundance of discerning intelligence and gratitude, an abundance of sources and the capacity to identify lessons worth learning and recognize indebtedness.
One of the lovely elements to this, is the specificity of his appreciation of different characters:
From his brother Severus, “to help others and be eager to share, not to be a pessimist, and never to doubt your friends’ affection for you”; from his mother, generosity and an “inability not only to do wrong but even to conceive of doing it.”
Implicit in all this is an invitation to us all to be humble, and to reflect. Reading through Debts and Lessons, we cannot but become aware of those whose impact and gifts we carry inside us. What might emerge if we undertook the same task as Aurelius – if we took the time to acknowledge the many humans who have supported us and discern their specific gifts? Contemporary writer William Gibson coined the idea that each of us inhabits “a personal micro-culture” — the many elements that have made us who we are. Aurelius offers us an example of how to clarify our personal influences and origins.
To map our lives this way, at any point, is to paint a rich portrait of where the soul stands ‘now’. Who and what would register for us? What would be ‘left out’ from our field of gratitude? (What remains unresolved or bitter inside us)? How capable would we be of discerning or appreciating the different gifts or lessons bestowed on us? What others would mean the most to us and how would our appreciation of them have morphed and clarified over the years?
(I'll be offering a workshop on 're-imagining gratitude' on April 29 - drawing on Marcus, Leonard Cohen, and contemporary gratitude research. We will explore how to refine and deepen our vision of our gratitude to make room for resentment and irresolution, and, as Marcus did, identify the lessons, even in the hard things)