Gathered wisdom from Marcus Aurelius to Ferris Bueller.
It’s Monday… so, as promised. (4 Minute Read)
“Isms in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an ism, he should believe in himself.”
- Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ferris Bueller, quoting John Lennon.
In seventh grade, my parents let me have a tv in my room. Before you judge, to call this a television by modern standards would be like calling school cafeteria French bread pizza: ‘pizza’. This twelve by twelve by twelve inch box was not connected to our cable (it didn’t even receive the major broadcast networks), but underneath its nine-inch convex glass screen was a built-in VCR.
This meant my in-room viewing experience was more or less me watching the same ~five VHS tapes on repeat. It blows my mind now (I don’t even own a tv at the moment), but back then, it felt ‘normal’ to watch the same movies over and over again. Of the short stack of tapes I kept in my room, two come to mind.
The first, curiously, is Erin Brockovich, which upon reflection feels like an odd pick for a twelve year old. The second is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I’m fairly certain that in 2001, repeatedly watching a movie from 1986 made me feel like an ‘old soul’. If Kevin McCallister was my first crush, Ferris Bueller was my first idea of what constituted ‘boyfriend material’ — Because nothing says hot like sweater vests and going to elaborate lengths to skip school in the name of a good time.
Once you’ve seen a movie upwards of 100 times, the viewing experience takes on a new shape. No part of your brain is wondering: what’s going to happen? After watch fifty or so, it verges on meditation. The lines, the characters, the places become so familiar, seeping into your brain until they are part of you.
Over time, I stopped viewing Ferris as a love interest and instead decided that I could be Ferris. Without being aware of it at the time, it’s now obvious, to me, that I attended high school with a ‘Ferris mentality’ (which probably at least partially explains how I ended up at a school like UW-Madison). For all the wisdom Ferris lacked, some of his ‘isms’ undeniably shaped my younger self.
I’d like to think that had I grown up in a different era, I might have had a more impressive mentor. But, in pre-2008 American suburbia, that society was still so riddled with serious problems was an enigma. I would go as far to say that I was disappointed not to be living in a ‘more exciting’ era. Even though I thought George W’s presidency was a dumpster fire (enough to, at age 16, spray paint t-shirts with two friends in the art room and drive down to Ohio State to attend an Iraq War protest), it wasn’t enough to shake my teenage perspective that my grandparents’ generation had solved the hard problems.
Clearly I was way off.
A lot happened after I left for college: a financial crisis, the birth of social media, the first Black president, the first orange president. As wild as all of that was, none of it disrupted the way we live in the profound way that this pandemic has. Last summer, life felt so up-ended that I turned to philosophy.
I picked up a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and evidently a lot of other people were doing the same (including Zadie Smith, whose Intimations, published last July, is a lovely thoughtful, short, introspective read). Twenty twenty was maybe the best year for Stoicism ever. Sales of ‘Stoic titles’ have been steadily climbing in recent decades and all but exploded last year, which is easy to believe since Stoicism teaches people how to be calm in the face of overwhelming anxiety. Relevant.
It’s worth noting that Meditations came after Stoicism — Aurelius was not a student at “The Stoa”, but an independent Roman scholar, particularly drawn to the work of the ‘late Stoic’ Epictetus. So, while Meditations has been grouped with Stoic texts, Aurelius also drew from non-Stoic sources.
Part of what makes Meditations so accessible today is that it’s basically like reading a guy’s journal — two thousand years later — as he tries to answer: Why are we here? How should we live our lives? How can we protect ourselves from the stresses of daily life? How can we live with the knowledge that someday we will no longer exist?
Ancient philosophers: They’re just like us!?
As wonderful and beautiful as many of the individual ‘meditations’ are:
“Dig deep. The water — the goodness — is down there. As long as you keep digging, it will keep bubbling up.”
“What stands in the way becomes the way.”
“Awaken; return to yourself. Now, no longer asleep, knowing they were only dreams, clear-headed again, treat everything around you as a dream.”
“The best revenge is not to be like that.”
“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”
I was most struck by how relatable his words were; that for those who ask, the heaviest questions and contemplations have not changed over thousands of years. In that I found actual solace.
I’ve stopped longing to live in a ‘more exciting’ time — the present certainly isn’t boring. And yet, regardless of all that is happening, we’re still asking ourselves the same things. We’re still searching for meaning. For as obsessed as we’ve become with talking about the particularities of the era in which we live, we’re just not that special. Sigh.
“The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception.”
- Meditations, Marcus Aurelius.
It’s easy to look back at Ferris and see a self-centered hedonist who thought the rules didn’t apply to him, because he was that. Still, I would argue that to only see that is to completely miss his genius. Ferris was nothing if not a brilliant performer, infusing the most prosaic American high school experience with that which is memorable, as much for those around him as for himself, if not more so.
In the Spirit of Marcus Aurelius:
MY MOTHER: For always being (or at least seeming) so happy to be my mother, and for being a true friend.
MY FATHER: For being the epitome of kindness, gentleness, and generosity.
MY FATHER’S MOTHER: The embodiment of confidence in one’s personal preferences.
MY FATHER’S FATHER: For his wit and the appreciation of stories, the written word, and the hand-written note.
THE STOICS: For being a beacon of calm, an antidote to hysteria.
THE HEDONISTS: A reminder to take pleasure in the human experience.
2020: In the face of loss, seeing that there’s so much more to gain.
Meditations, Marcus Aurelius.
Intimations, Zadie Smith