1: “Late in his reign, sick and possibly near death, [the Roman Emperor] Marcus Aurelius received surprising news,” writes Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph.
“His old friend and most trusted general, Avidius Cassius, had rebelled in Syria,” Ryan notes. “Having heard the emperor was vulnerable or possibly dead, the ambitious general had decided to declare himself Caesar and forcibly seize the throne.”
Marcus should have been furious. After all, Avidius threatened his life, family, and legacy. He might have vowed to find and crush this man who had betrayed him.
But that’s not what Marcus did. Instead, he did . . . nothing. He kept the news secret from his troops, who would have lusted for blood and revenge. He waited to see if his old friend would come to his senses.
But Avidius refused to back down. So Marcus “called a council of his soldiers and made a rather extraordinary announcement,” writes Ryan. They would march against Cassius. But they would not kill him.
Marcus vowed to “. . . forgive a man who has wronged one, to remain a friend to one who has transgressed friendship, to continue faithful to one who has broken faith.”
What did he do? He “acted—rightly and firmly—ordering troops to Rome to calm the panicking crowds and then set out to do what must be done: protect the empire, put down the threat,” Ryan writes.
“As he told his men, if there was one profit they could derive from this awful situation that they had not wanted, it would be to ‘settle this affair well and show to all mankind that there is a right way to to deal with civil wars.'”
Avidius would die unexpectedly, so Marcus was unable to grant clemency. He did, however, forgive all those who had been involved. He refused to execute any of the co-conspirators. Nor did he prosecute any of the senators or governors who had supported the uprising.
“He wouldn’t take any of it personally,” Ryan writes. “He’d be a better person, a better leader for it.”
2: So, what does this story have to do with us?
“Yes, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to make an armed run at our throne anytime soon,” Ryan notes. “But people will make pointed remarks. They will cut us off in traffic. Our rivals will steal our business. We will be hurt. Forces will try to hold us back.”
We all know: “Bad stuff will happen,” he writes. But “we can turn even this to our advantage.”
Always. Every time, Ryan tells us.
“And if our only option—as was the case with Marcus—because of someone else’s greed or lust for power, is simply to be a good person and practice forgiveness? Well, that’s still a pretty good option.”
3: The obstacle becomes the way.
This is the theme for all the heroes in Ryan’s book.
“Something stands in someone’s way. They stare it down, they aren’t intimidated,” Ryan writes. “Leaning into their problem or weakness or issue, they give everything they have, mentally and physically. Even though they did not always overcome it in the way they intended or expected, each individual emerged better, stronger.”
The obstacle is the way.
“It’s inspiring. It’s moving. It’s an art we need to bring to our lives,” he writes.
It is a mindset: Yes, we will face challenges. But this is not cause to despair. Instead, we see the obstacles we face as opportunities. To test ourselves. To improve ourselves.
“It is so much better to be this way, isn’t it?” Ryan observes. “There is a lightness and a flexibility to this approach that seem very different from how we—and most people—choose to live. With our disappointments and resentments and frustrations.”
The good news?
It’s a loop that becomes easier with time: “To be sure, no one is saying we’ve got to do it all at once,” he writes. “Margaret Thatcher didn’t become known as the Iron Lady until she was sixty years old. There’s a saying in Latin: Vires acquirit eundo (We gather strength as we go). That’s how it works. That’s our motto.”
The obstacle is the way.
We learn to flip challenges and setbacks, and mistakes upside down.
As Marcus Aurelius wrote so many centuries ago:
“The impediment to action advances action.
What stands in the way becomes the way.”
Reflection: What obstacle am I facing? How can we flip this challenge upside down?
Action: Journal about it. Take action.