In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius said:
“Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people—unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and what they’re saying, and what they’re thinking, and what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind.”
In my opinion, Marcus touches on the main issue that holds people back in life: being attached to what other people think of them.
So I’m gonna explore this idea through a dialogue.
In Shinjuku, when the clock strikes midnight, a small bar opens up for a few hours.
Few people visit it, but the one’s who go know what they’re looking for.
Tonight, Himari takes a seat alone, and after a few drinks, she has the following conversation with the bartender.
B: “If you’re attached to what other people think of you, you’ll never do anything truly useful.”
H: “What do you mean?”
B: “If you’re attached to what other people think of you, you’ll never be yourself. And if life has taught me anything, it’s that being yourself is the only truly useful thing someone can do.”
H: “I don’t get it. How is being myself useful?”
B: “True usefulness comes from being what you are. Think about a tree: its fruits and oxygen are a byproduct of it being itself. The same holds true for us. We do useful things by being ourselves.”
H: “But aren’t I always myself?”
B: “You’re getting stuck in language. Let’s look at the tree again. Several things can stop the tree from being itself such as a lack of sunlight, a lack of water, and lots of competition in the environment. There are obstacles stopping the tree from being. So being yourself is the same as overcoming your own obstacles. And one of the greatest obstacles to being yourself is being attached to what other people think of you.”
H: “How does being attached to what other people think of me stop me from being myself?”
B: “When you are being yourself, you have to be willing to violate people’s expectations of you. You have to be willing to disappoint them. You have to be willing for them to react negatively. But someone who’s attached to what other people think of them is not willing to take that risk, so they end up being who others want them to be rather than being themselves.”
H: “I guess you’re right. But what can I do? I depend on what people think of me to survive.”
B: “So you’re attached to what people think of you because you’re dependent on their opinion for security. But if your relationship depends on satisfying someone’s expectations, it’s not a real relationship. You are a prisoner to someone’s idea of you.”
H: “That’s true, but there’s still security in a prison.”
B: “Yes, but you’re in a prison. You’ve traded the whole of your life for security. What is there left to secure?”
H: “Hmm I guess that’s true. I never thought about it. But no matter what I do, or where I go, I’ll always depend on people’s opinions for security! That’s how the world is, isn’t it.”
B: “If you sell water in a desert, does it matter what people think of you? If you can truly produce something of value, their opinions do not matter.”
H: “I guess you’re right. But how do I make something of value?”
B: “That’s like asking how the tree makes its fruit. I’ll put it like this: a tree is imprisoned by a lack of water, sunlight, and competition. When the tree breaks out of these prisons, when it becomes completely free, the fruit is the natural outcome. It’s not about how you can produce something of value, but how you can become free. When you break free of all your prisons, your fruit comes of its own accord.”
Marcus Aurelius said that caring about what other people think would prevent you from doing anything useful, and I explored the meaning behind this idea through a dialogue. The most useful thing someone can do is be themselves. And what we truly are can never be put into words.
Whether we think we are good, bad, an artist, or a lawyer, what we are can never be boiled down to a single word.
When we say, “I am a wife,” or “a mother,” or “a musician,” or “a lawyer,” we’re taking one tiny sliver of our memory and identifying ourselves with it. We’re more than our memories.
Being yourself is the same as overcoming your own problems, and truly overcoming your own problems is what allows you to help others overcome theirs—which is why true value lies in being oneself.
But as long as we’re attached to what other people think of us, we will always be what people want us to be rather than being ourselves.
And if we abandon ourselves, we abandon our ability to be truly useful to the world.
And if we abandon our ability to be truly useful to the world, we abandon what is perhaps the only form of true security.
On the other hand, when we be what other people want us to be, we have the security of a prisoner, which is security in exchange for life—and that’s really not any security at all.