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The Good Meditations

Mike Overby
Mike Overby is a software developer looking for work, host of a law review podcast called Amicus Lectio, and a moderator of Programming Discussions (invite.progdisc.club). Follow me on Twitter!
Updated on ・12 min read

Months ago, I bought Meditations by Marcus Aurelius because I am a compulsive book-buyer and I'd always heard that it has great, life-changing advice. Turns out, pretty much no. Some people's thinking gets warped after they're adopted by hereditary monarchs and they try to reconcile ideas about others' inherent worth with deserving absolute power over others just because of who they are. In Aurelius, it shows.

Around the fifth time he brought up the suicide as a solution if you don't enjoy your life (it's short anyway), I started picturing him musing about death while a slave held his grapes. When he told me, time and again, to simply banish the negative thoughts and anxiety, he seemed to me neurotypical, to say the least. After he let me in on the secrets that you can just explain to people why they are wrong and it is their fault if they are hurt by what you've said, I realized in a flash why this man is such a Stoic icon to the personal-responsibility/libertarian/every-man-for-himself types.

To be clear, not all of it is bad advice. Much of it is pithy truisms, albeit filtered through the lens of a serious elitist. Aurelius reminds us, in general, to live for the present and to not worry about worldly possessions and to be true to ourselves and such. These obvious points well-stated are appreciated. But, beyond those, I wanted to record the Meditations that spoke to me and why.

Book 3, Number 14

Stop drifting. You're not going to reread your Brief Comments, your Deeds of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the commonplace books you saved for your old age. Sprint for the finish. Write off your hopes, and if your well-being matters to you, be your own savior while you can.

If you've been following me for any length of time since I quit working for TCS in 2017, I think it would be fair to believe I have been drifting since, but that's not accurate. Quitting was the right decision because I had become miserable and hit my limit. Since then, I have been confronting all the aspects of my life that lead me to that awful place. The 23 years I had lived before I quit was drifting, coasting along with beliefs that had been maliciously programmed for me. I was narrow-minded, incurious, and manipulated to serve the interests of plutocrats, who would never and have never spared a thought for the welfare of people like me because they've been trained out of any need to.

None of us will get where we want to go if we coast along with bad situations, hold on to ideologies that do not work, or wait until we're about to die to do the things we really want for our ourselves. We have to save ourselves from systems created to suppress us by rejecting the interests of the few and promoting policies that raise us all up.

Book 4, Number 32

Survey the records of other eras. And see how many others gave their all and soon died and decomposed into the elements that formed them.

This is a pull-quote from a much longer passage about how many people do not live to achieve their goals. Aside from the memento mori, this makes me think of the many, many, many American socialists who have committed suicide because the world would not bend. I can't say whether any of them, individually, had the best plan for humanity, but it is a tragedy that people who want to help others have historically been so completely denied a forum in the United States that ending their lives seemed like the least bad option. Is it so wrong to want to provide for the sick and the needy, or to end war, that they must be dismissed out of hand? Was it right to call their ideas "crazy" while we continue to focus on ideas and build systems which "make sense" while empirically disempowering almost everyone?

And that's just the socialists. Consider the Native Americans and the tri-racial isolates. Did you know that there were plenty of white people and free black people during the colonial era (and after) who went to live with tribes because they thought the Native Americans' way of life was better, more civilized? And yet, not only has the United States systematically murdered them and marginalized their way of life, we continue to lie about their supposed "savagery" and glorify their killings with mythically-white cowboys. We do this so that our young generations don't even feel bad about it or consider the natives' humanity, and we have sold countless bad ideas to children this way.

There are other ways to live that mitigate or eliminate negative effects of, for example, capitalism's unchecked acceleration. Look back on the history of people who conceived of and practiced other ways of life—only to be atomized by hegemonic and exploitative forces—and weep!

Book 5, Number 1

So you were born to feel "nice?" Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don't you see the plants, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you're not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren't you running to do what your nature demands?

I don't think this metaphor is perfect because of the cultural hang-ups we have about jobs and working. (It's to the point where most people don't get to have quality healthcare without getting a job first!) But, as this pertains to following our nature: we live among such a huge variety of life with an intricate weave of interrelations, yet it's supposedly natural for us to ignore this and each other? It's supposedly natural for us to seek only personal gratification? Hell no! I believe that there is an urge inside each of us to be socially positive and that this urge can be silenced by various abuses inflicted upon it. When we live constantly with that abuse, it becomes difficult to separate the aftershocks of that abuse from our worldview. The remedy is to acknowledge that the coercion we are constantly subjected to is abuse and to scream that it is not normal. We were not put here to make ourselves feel "nice," individually. The only sensible orientation is to make ourselves feel "nice," collectively. We must reject the former in favor of designing more humane relationships that accomplish the latter.

Book 5, Number 11

What am I doing with my soul?

Interrogate yourself, to find out what inhabits your so-called mind and what kind of soul you have now. A child's soul, an adolescent's, a woman's? A tyrant's soul? The soul of a predator—or is it prey?

Marcus Aurelius said "trans rights."

Book 6, Number 27

How cruel—to forbid people to want what they think is good for them. And yet that's what you won't let them do when you get angry at their misbehavior. They're drawn toward what they think is good for them.

—But it's not good for them.

Then show them that. Prove it to them. Instead of losing your temper.

OK, you can lose your temper. The important thing is to focus on finding ways to prove that alternative ways of life are possible and preferable, at the very least for yourself. Acting on this does not have to be some complex political statement or movement; you can practice it by living in the way you wish, unashamed and open to others without reservation. If you can do it, then it should be impossible to stop if you do not want to stop, and perhaps you'll be vindicated in the end.

The flip-side of this is that, in a majoritarian democratic system, it only takes a majority of other people to enforce certain kinds of order. This has lead to injustices. People become invested in their ways of viewing the world and those ways are frequently chosen by other people. The ultimate form of empathy is figuring out ways to inspire it in the minds of bigoted people, and it is all-too-frequently necessary.

Book 7, Number 1

Evil: the same old thing.

No matter what happens, keep this in mind: It's the same old thing, from one end of the world to the other. It fills the history books, ancient and modern, and the cities, and the houses too. Nothing new at all.

Familiar, transient.

The evil that writes unjust laws is the same evil that writes unjust code, because code is the law within the digital systems we create. Digital systems we create can either calcify, accelerate, replace, or eliminate systems of oppression that already exist, and too many developers are content to spend their entire lives drifting through the first three while cashing their checks. It should not be that we live with the means of radical positive change in so many households around the world and are content to merely keep the same cycles spinning so the same weak remain weak and the same powerful remain powerful.

Which, not to put a fine point on it, is exactly what the tech billionaires are. They are the same plutocrats who have always tried to run everybody else's lives. Only, this time, we ceded control of our new paradigm to them so they could mold our new "normal" in whatever way they wanted. Is it any surprise that they who dreamed of becoming billionaires designed their systems to crush and manipulate people who were not billionaires? It is evil: the same old thing. Nothing new at all. Familiar, transient.

Book 7, Number 7

Don't be ashamed to need help. Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you've been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up? So what?

This is the thing I struggle with the most. My anxiety makes me feel like I'm a bother and inconvenience to everyone else. But those feelings of fear that chain me, as difficult as they are to break, are not real. There is no shame in needing to be helped, and there is great good in helping others. The constant barrage of "self-sufficiency" and "productivity" we are subjected to from birth has eroded the bonds that used to be forged by community life. That it is difficult to ask even my friends for help is a sign that something has gone terribly wrong and I've internalized it.

Book 7, Number 49

Look at the past—empire succeeding empire—and from that, extrapolate the future: the same thing. No escape from the rhythm of events.

Which is why observing life for forty years is as good as a thousand. Would you really see anything new?

Computers have always had the capacity to change the way that we live in positive ways, but they have mostly been used by the powers-that-have-been as a conservative force. They have locked us into obsolete ways of organizing our lives. In this way, the 40 years since the computer started going extremely mainstream are very much like the thousand years before, and that is an epic tragedy. If we, the people who actually make this stuff, are to actually deliver on those promises of a better world, we must first look to the past and extrapolate to the future to see that our current path leads to our ultimate destruction. We cannot keep creating such exploitative technology the way we have done. Wouldn't you like to see something that is new and good, rather than old and bad? Tech must change, and we are tech.

Book 7, Number 74

No one objects to what is useful to him.

To be of use to others is natural.

Then don't object to what is useful to you—being of use.

My corollary to this is that it is not natural to be of use only to yourself. We have never lived on this forsaken rock alone, and so we must live together and aid one another. Standing in the way of that in any way is antithetical to whatever common "human nature" there is.

Book 9, Number 5

And you can also commit injustice by doing nothing.

Silently accepting oppression just because it affects you least is one of the worst things you can do. The so-called Bystander Effect is a product of a media sensation campaign. It is not real and it is not an excuse. We must stand up for each other rather than farming out responsibility to bureaucracies that diffuse blame. Absorb blame whenever you can, because you can always redirect it towards finding solutions rather than punishment while it remains in your discretion.

Book 9, Number 29

Do what nature demands. Get a move on—if you have it in you—and don't worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don't go expecting Plato's Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.

A comment on my article, "Invisible Projects", made me realize I had left something unclear that could probably be the subject of a longer post. I do not believe in "credit" as a concept. The industry's frequently-abused obsession with open-source contributions pressures me to care about a concept I find completely artificial, and that is the gripe I was expressing. We should be free to do what we want to and what we like to without the chain of making sure other people notice after the fact for our careers' sakes. This expectation of "credit" makes each of us rivals in an informal attention economy without regulation, erects barriers that legitimize discrimination on the basis of "well, I know this person" for those in positions to be seen, and disincentivizes all forms of charity that can't be bragged about effectively.

So-called "credit" has no value outside of a system that is perpetuated because it perpetuates the power of people who already have it. A system's purpose is what it does, and I reject this one. Put my name on my work because you believe knowledge of my work improves your work, or do not do it. Anything less could not insult me more.

Book 10, Number 10

Spiders are proud of catching flies, men of catching hares, fish in a net, boars, bears, Samaritans...

Criminal psychology.

Mindsets focused on maximizing exploitation are predatory and corrosive. Do not squeeze every drop you can out of other people, because then they will have nothing left over for the causes that they believe in. The next time someone proposes a new rule and someone else whines "Will this stifle innovation?" ask them "Will this stifle exploitation?"

Book 10, Number 37

Learn to ask of all actions, "Why are they doing that?"

Starting with your own.

I, of course, first read this about trying to understand that the person who wrote that nonsensical bug was just like you. It's about empathy when others make mistakes, as they are not always malicious. Particularly, it need not be malicious when it is obvious from the outside that they are working against their own interest. It is important to remember that a system of winners and losers implies winners have every reason to create self-dedicated losers and decrease the surplus competition at the top.

And, yes, start with yourself. Where do you stand in this system? Why?

Do you believe that it is right to push people down to promote yourself? Is this because you are so sure that there is no other way to live than the one you were born with? If you could rearrange the world so that you were at the bottom and every single other person was at the top, would you do it? If not, is that reason a naked expression of prejudice?

Do you believe that it is wrong to push people down to promote yourself? What have you done to learn about and connect yourself to other people's experiences? What do you do to make it harder for people to hurt each other? When was the last time you judged anything unsustainable because of how it affected other people? Did you destroy it?

Book 11, Number 4

Have I done something for the common good? Then I share in the benefits.

To stay centered on that. Not to give up.

If you are not working to make the world better for everyone, you aren't making the world better for anyone. Personal wealth generally evaporates after a few generations except in the tiniest minority of cases with institutional access. If that is your metric of success, then your life will come to nothing in the bitter end.

On the other hand, you could adopt the posture that what raises up one of us can raise us all up and seek the common good. The "Tragedy of the Commons" is another myth that has been well-debunked, originating from a horribly racist paper that claims "The Freedom to Breed is Intolerable." This is the kind of thinking that is buried underneath a lot of arguments against treating each other the right way. It must be brought to light and worked against while we make the world better for everyone.

Book 12, Number 19

It's time you realized that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet.

What's in my thoughts at this moment? Fear? Jealousy? Desire? Feelings like that?

Aurelius tied this to having emotions—a concept which he staunchly opposed—but I would prefer to read this as an indictment of systems. We are more than the systems we were born into or were placed into by others. The people who design these systems would have you believe we are machines merely responding to incentives, but that is because they want us to act more like their machines and believe this behavior is natural. This makes developers less curious about the impacts of the things we're building and people less critical of the things we use, which maximizes the control these systems exert over us.

Stop helping the powerful build the means of manipulating people like you!

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