Thoughts on one of the greatest lessons you can learn in your lifetime.
I’ve learned in my years that we all go through these life lessons specially tailored just for us. Some call it the “universe,” but I call it God. I feel like one by one, and if we are willing and paying attention, He’ll give us these lessons until we finally “get it.” And our lives become better for it. But unfortunately, some people don’t “get it” and can remain stuck in the same reciprocal pattern for years. Sometimes, they stay stuck for the rest of their lives.
And I fully believe you will be taught and tested in your lesson du jour over and over until you finally learn. Learning isn’t a bad thing, but sometimes, it can be a painful thing. I’ve learned much more about myself in the last decade than all the others combined.
But there’s one huge lesson that has plagued me for the entirety of my life. It’s my one big lesson. It’s the one that has changed the course of my life over and over again. It’s kept me stuck and in pain, and I’ve made myself my own worst enemy. And although I’ve come to grips with it in a million small ways, finally learning its nucleus is recent. So recent, I still fear it. So I’m walking on the shaky ground like a baby first learning to walk.
The lesson is this. People can never touch your soul. And if they do, it’s only because you allow them to.
What do I mean by that?
I’ve had my share of tyranny in my life. And after an abusive relationship, I spent a lot of time coming to grips with why I had allowed myself to be in that situation. I tread lightly on this topic because not for once am I blaming any victim of abuse for their abuse. But with me, I was an easy target for abusers. And I wanted to make damn sure that I was never going to allow that to happen to me again once I finally got out, and shockingly enough, I got out alive.
But to be on the lookout for tyranny and abuse in relationships is only one part. Unfortunately, I never think to look into other areas of my life, including my professional life.
Lately, I’ve become enamored once again with the writings of Marcus Aurelius. He was Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD but is also known well as one of the genuinely great stoic philosophers. He also tried to exemplify moral character during a time of significant corruption. I question pretty frequently if there was ever a time without great corruption. But I wanted to know how he dealt with it. And his answers both surprised me and angered me.
“Remember then to withdraw into the little field of self. Above all, never struggle or strain; but be master of yourself, and view life as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, and as a mortal. Among the truths you will do well to contemplate most frequently are these two: first, that things can never touch the soul, but stand inert outside it, so that disquiet can arise only from fancies within; and secondly, that all visible objects change in a moment, and will be no more. Think of the countless changes in which you yourself have had a part, the whole universe is change, and life itself is but what you deem it.”
What the f***? Yep, that was my first response. What he’s saying is that it’s mind over matter. People, all manners of people, can throw whatever they want toward you. It cannot touch your soul. You have complete control over what hurts you and affects you and what does not. And I kept thinking to myself, but he didn’t understand. If a drop of water hits a rock long enough, it affects it. It carves a deep hole in it. And again, I read his words.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment. If the cause of the trouble lies in your own character, set about reforming your principles; who is there to hinder you?
And then he spoke of those people. You know, those who live to make your life a living hell. They want to provoke, anger, or make you cry, and they find some sick pleasure. But Marcus Aurelius said for us to let that all go and harbor no ill will. Is he crazy, I thought?
“That men of a certain type should behave as they do is inevitable. To wish it otherwise were to wish the fig-tree would not yield its juice. In any case, remember that in a very little while both you and he will be dead, and your very name will quickly be forgotten.”
In Betty’s terms, I put it this way. Assholes will be assholes. Tyrants will be tyrants. Miserable little people will wish for you to be nothing less than the same. So they will try their hardest to thwart you. They will try to stop you. They will try to keep you down. But, worst of all, they will try to make you buy into their perception of you.
But they are small. And life is fleeting. They can’t stop you. They can’t thwart you. They can’t make you feel “less” without your permission. Their opinion of you is frankly none of your business. You’ll never be able to change them. You’ll never be able to please them. You only have yourself. And that’s all you can control, and you can prevent them from touching your soul.
But this has been me for so, so long. YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND. I’d say to my friends and family. You don’t know how bad it is. I’d cry for hours to people close to me. And one night this past year, I was beyond defeated. I questioned why I should even keep living. I hadn’t felt that way since I was in the abuse when death seemed more like a welcomed friend than a terrible foe.
My friends have told me over and over and over again that it doesn’t matter. Others don’t define you. But recently, I was reading about just letting things go. As simple as holding a book and your hand and then dropping it. To let things go with that type of ease. And then, this past week, when a moment seemed unbearable, a man I truly love with all my heart, even though he’s a complete asshole, gave me that same advice. He said as I sat crying in front of him, just. Let. It. Go. They can’t hurt you. They can’t affect you. Don’t let it.
I think about the people I read who were in concentration camps in WWII. One of my favorite books is Night by Elie Wiesel, about his time serving in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Please don’t misunderstand. I’ve never known this type of suffering. I’ve only known the possibility that I wouldn’t live. And that is the only comparison I can draw. However, how do people in that desperate situation say things like this?
“There’s a long road of suffering ahead of you. But don’t lose courage. You’ve already escaped the gravest danger: selection. So now, muster your strength, and don’t lose heart. We shall all see the day of liberation. Have faith in life. Above all else, have faith. Drive out despair, and you will keep death away from yourselves. Hell is not for eternity. And now, a prayer – or rather, a piece of advice: let there be comradeship among you. We are all brothers, and we are all suffering the same fate. The same smoke floats over all our heads. Help one another. It is the only way to survive.”
“Have faith in life.” It’s so beautiful. And it’s so difficult. You see, life is hard. No one ever tells you that part. But it’s hard. And it gets harder. So happiness is only found one way. It’s right where you are, regardless of your situation. People cannot touch your soul. You will suffer, survive, and at some point, we all end the same way. You can’t lose heart, even in the direst of circumstances. No one can hurt you. You belong to God. And you may experience an outward misery. But your soul is safe. YOU are your soul’s keeper.
I have every reason to be angry. I have every reason to be bitter and vengeful. I have every reason to wish my wrath on those who have wronged me. But I also have every choice not to. Because when I let go, I am free. They cannot continue to keep hold of me any longer. I am my own. And my soul belongs to God and me. And I can choose to give better than I am given.
Marcus Aurelius said, “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”
No one can touch my soul. And my soul is finally free.