meditations – saying no …or not?

There is a lot in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations that I found revelatory, or at least that I agreed with whole-heartedly or otherwise found value in. You only have to read through the many “meditations” posts that I’ve done since last year to see proof of that. For the most part, what he wrote 2000 years ago still seems relevant today.

There are, however, a few things that I do not agree with, that I don’t think is applicable to modern times, or that I find somewhat perplexing. One of these things is the question of when to say no. 

In the first Book of Meditations, Marcus Aurelius names a number of significant people in his life, and lists off various admirable qualities about each of them. For example, the first line is dedicated to his grandfather Verus, who he credits with teaching him “decency and a mild temper”.

Eventually, Marcus gives mention to Alexander the Platonist (who, according to the added notes at the back of the book, was his secretary). To Alexander the Platonist’s credit, Marcus writes:

“…rarely, and never without essential cause, to say or write to anyone that ‘I am too busy’; nor to use a similar excuse, advancing ‘pressure of circumstances’, in constant avoidance of the proprieties inherent in our relations to our fellows and contemporaries.”
– Book 1, Chapter 12

When I read this, it sounded to me like he’s saying we should never say no to meeting or visiting a friend – or even an acquaintance – if they have asked us to meet with them, and the only excuse we can proffer is “I’m too busy” (which may very well be a legitimate excuse).

I think these days people lament too much that there’s not enough time: There’s not enough time to get all this work done; not enough time to have a social life and hang out with these friends, go out with this person, catch up with that group; not enough time to do these chores, schedule maintenance, fix this thing; and certainly not enough time to eat, sleep and simply survive.

The other day, when I was at work, I was hurriedly packing up an esky for a colleague/ friend to take on an urgent delivery. She commented (half-jokingly, I believe) that she’s never seen me move so fast. At this, I stopped, half in offence (but half-jokingly offended), and I asked her why we need to always be in such a hurry anyway?

To get stuff done – to get more stuff done. [Not her exact answer but something to that effect]

But why do we have to do so many things? Why do we have to do these things at all? Why not say no, slow down, stop, breathe, rest…

Of course, I can’t really talk on this matter. I’m constantly feeling like there are too many things I want to do, and not enough time to do all these things. A lot of my thoughts these days revolve around food and meal prep: What food do I have at home? What should I prepare for the week ahead?

Then there’s my visceral need to read and to write. And between all this, I need to find time to run (otherwise I will get restless, even if I have no energy), and to study Persian (because the joy of learning is still strong within me).

So, with all this loaded up on my proverbial plate, I would happily spend entire week-ends at home, alone, doing all these solitary things. But as soon as someone suggests meeting up for lunch, or catching up over coffee, or going for a walk – I say yes, and I put all those other things aside. I am “too busy” but it doesn’t seem like a good enough excuse. Is that what Alexander the Platonist thought too?

What drives my reasoning is actually something else that Marcus Aurelius has written about: transience. I’ve already written a post about transience last year, but I’ve extended that concept to other people’s transience. That is, that I should not take someone for granted because I don’t know when they will be gone (not necessarily from the world, but from my life).

So, yes, I tend to say yes to these things.

But this reasoning – of transience – offers its own counter-argument. If my time is so limited, and I have so many things to do, and I do not know when my time will run out, shouldn’t I say no to these social gatherings, and focus on something more worthwhile?

Marcus Aurelius writes a lot about social responsibility and doing things for a greater good: “One aim only: action or inaction as civic cause demands” (Book 9, Chapter 12). He also often berates himself for thoughts of seeking fame or praise, and almost seems to not care about other people’s opinions. In Book 11, Chapter 4, he writes that using “fear or pursuit of public opinion” is a “poor motive” even for refraining oneself from doing something bad.

So, at this point, you might be wondering, “what the heck are we supposed to do?” But it seems, like many things in life, there’s no straightforward answer.

If we go back to the virtue of Alexander the Platonist, it might be noted that “essential causes” are exempt from this whole “never say no” thing. But what makes something essential? Civic duty?

A friend (ironically the very same one who was waiting for me to pack the esky) once shared with me that quote (source unknown?) about not being able to give from an empty cup. From this, it may be reasoned that you cannot fulfil “civic duty” if you, yourself, are worn out and run down.

Maybe this whole thing wasn’t something I disagreed with from Meditations, but simply something that needed more contemplation… Maybe I can do all my solitary things…

To finish on a lighter note, here’s another excerpt from Book One (and a different Alexander) that I think is very much still relevant today:

“From Alexander the grammarian: not to leap on mistakes, or captiously interrupt when anyone makes an error of vocabulary, syntax or pronunciation, but neatly to introduce the correct form of that particular expression…”
– Book 1, Chapter 10

12 thoughts on “meditations – saying no …or not?

  1. It is so hard to strike a balance. It took a cold and a cough that grounded me at home to tackle all those tasks left on the back burner. I rarely say no to meeting a friend in favor of staying home to read a book but I find my time is limited and I don’t get to see all the people I would like to see or do all the fun things I would like to do. I am still slave to the idea that I have to take care of business before going out to have fun and, at times, I wish I just threw my work ethics out of the window.

    • I don’t have too much problem throwing work ethic out the window if the “work” is household chores 😉
      Funny that illness made you get back to tasks on the back burner, but didn’t simply force you to rest…?

  2. Interesting thoughts Sharon! I don’t have a whole heap of friends in Singapore to meet up with anyway, or family commitments to attend to here, but I find myself still wanting some more alone time sometimes to just do absolutely nothing, or relax at home, or run all the errands I need to do. Perhaps it would be more of a problem if I had a lot of friends here (and perhaps it may be the case if I were in Brisbane with more social circles). At the same time, I crave human contact as well, so it’s kind of vacillating between these two desires. I think though, some acquaintances probably may not be worth going out with too regularly, especially if they don’t really contribute anything particularly meaningful in your life other than small talk and trivial banter. Though I wouldn’t say no to meeting up usually – unless it becomes too often.
    I find that I would pick my occasions I go to if I had a choice though; between my boyfriend and a regular acquaintance I would always pick my boyfriend.

    • Lately I’ve been thinking that my problem is being an extrovert with traditionally introvert hobbies (reading, writing, studying, running). Maybe you are mostly an introvert but with an extrovert’s need to be around people (?)

      • Hmm this is an interesting thought! That could be true! Although it’s not a problem at all haha, I guess it is good to enjoy a variety of hobbies and social situations!

        Now that I think of it, I probably have quite a few things I like to do that is typically an ‘extrovert’ activity (cooking for people to eat with them; hiking/cycling/exploring places/travelling with people; and doing new activities (I think I’m probably not focussed enough but I always like to try new things… like going to theme parks, eating nice food in restaurants, doing new activities like pottery or rockclimbing or ice-skating etc).. and all these things kind of revolve around doing it with someone because it would be so lonely to do them alone haha. But I have to admit after doing these things I feel quite drained out (from the activity plus hanging out with people lol), and need a break from it all.

        The main things I actually like to do alone is writing, surfing the net to read about random stuff/watch random shows, working, and art…

  3. Ah, so many things to do but so little time. We are blessed with so many possibilities to spend our time on these days that somehow I feel like I’m always pressured to chase after fulfilling both social and personal responsibilities. Spending a weekend binge-watching movies and falling asleep in the bathtub? Such a waste of quality time. Yet it is so hard to carry myself out to meet friends (although I would eventually enjoy socializing once I pass the door threshold) .
    The other day I was scolded by a friend for flaking out too many times from friend gatherings. That made me feel guilty and then I would start a cycle of thinking I should be more active while also strive to be good to my own mental health, eventually got tired of trying, shutdown for a few weekends, repeat. Life. So hard.

    • It is hard to find a good balance, and hard to keep everyone happy (including ourselves).

      I do relate to that feeling of not wanting to go out, like I’m dragging myself to get out the door, but at the same time knowing that I will have a good time. I try to live without regrets – whatever the outcome, whatever the cost (time). I’m an optimist at heart: I cannot regret quality time spent with friends, even if it means I’m tired; I cannot regret time spent to recharge, even if it means I miss out on an event.

      People say you have to look after yourself, but “social well-being” is part of overall well-being too…

  4. For me it is easy to say no to meeting up with people/gatherings, not because I don’t like the people, it is because I know I won’t be up for it if I do go, so why dampen everyone else’s mood with mine? So I do relate a lot to the quote your friend mentioned to you. But I think it really depends on the individual’s priorities, and the criteria on ranking those priorities will change with time and situation, so maybe there isn’t really a way to know until the moment arises?

    • I guess you are more introverted than me (?) so being around others isn’t gonna recharge you the same way. It’s good you can recognise situations you should say no to, and then actually say no as well

      • I would say so, more often than not, even if I’ve had a great time with people, I’ll be super tired when I get home and feel like I won’t want to see people for a week. It took a while to learn when to say no.

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