PC: Andrew Lynn

Is Life Really That Rough?

Stoic Mental Models and Lessons from Marcus Aurelius

Michael Trịnh
8 min readJan 31, 2019


Imagine being the proud father of your first child; a little girl. When you first see her, the doctor says she’s got a high fever. A few moments later she’s weakly crying, and soon after she’s coughing.

Weeks go by, and her health continues looking bleak. You pray for her health to get better, only to have things slowly worsen. Her fever stops, but it just gives way to worsening coughs. A couple years pass, and it becomes obvious that death is your unhealthy daughter’s likely fate.

In the meantime, your wife gives birth to two sons. It’s a nice relief from the constant hopes and sorrow you feel with your daughter. The twins seem healthy at first, but soon what felt like an irrational fear of them facing the same fate as your daughter, comes to reality.

“One man prays: ‘How I may not lose my little child’, but you must pray: ‘How I may not be afraid to lose him’. Imagine hearing this for the first time in your life, as a new father.”

It’s now been 4 years since the birth of your first child, and now, you are burying your daughter in the family mausoleum, alongside the twin boys. Why would the universe give you three hopeful children, only to swiftly and cruelly kill them off one by one?

The Life of Marcus Aurelius

This may seem like an unbearably cruel experience for anyone to face, especially from the perspective of a parent. However this was the brutal reality for one of Rome’s most renown emperors, Marcus Aurelius.

Known as “The Philosopher” during his reign, Aurelius was crucial for keeping Rome at peace during a period where strife was knocking on the empire’s front door. Bearing the loss of his children were just one of many things on Macrus’ mind.

Fast forward a couple years, and Rome finds itself in a war in Mesopotamia, or modern day Iraq. Along the way he had another three children born, two of which quickly died after. It had become evident to Marcus that on top of his duties as Rome’s emperor and protector, he would also have to consistently deal with the heaviest form of loss for the human mind; the death of one’s children.

By the end of the war in 166, only 4 out of Aurelius’ eventual 13 born children were alive.

Stoicism in Marcus’ Life

During this rough period of life, Aurelius’ belief in the idea of Stoicism had been crucial to keeping his psyche stable and determined. Marcus Aurelius had realized that although his life had been full of strife, he had survived each time nonetheless. Your brain is oftentimes predicting how things should be: what university you should be going to, who you should pursue a relationship with, and what your future should look like overall.

This is a key part of our psyche which Aurelius addressed in his thoughts:

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Nobody thinks that the future should bring swift and sickly death to their children, but nevertheless that happens even today. Most things in life will be out of your control, but what you can be in control of is your reaction to what happens.

Protecting Rome While Your Son Dies

As Emperor of Rome, it was clear that Aurelius’ duty to his nation came above all else. So when Rome fell under an existential threat posed by northern and central European tribes, Marcus Aurelius once again set out to lead an army to defend Rome’s domain.

In this time, Aurelius would spend his days on the battlefield and prepping his men. Meanwhile alone in his army tent, Marcus Aurelius would write up what would become one of Rome’s most powerful philosophical works: Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

Throughout this series of 12 separate books, Marcus addresses his inner thoughts, writing to himself about the main thing on his mind: stoic ideas and stoicism as an entire idea mindset.

Stoicism projects a very real and logical way of thinking onto its readers, such as seeing the concept of hope as a way to self compensate for an insecurity or fear which is time dependent. By assuming the best may happen, Stoicism argues that you are setting yourself up for an even worse psychological crash, by thinking how you thought something should have been.

Aurelius found solace still living with the memory of his lost loved ones, two bloody wars, etc. in his life. Aurelius’ mental model went from being centred on living life according to how he or someone else thought he should be living, to living life without the expectations of the masses and living mostly by his own terms.

Gratefulness is a Superpower: A Personal Experience

If you are anything like me initially, you may very logically believe that this stuff about being in 100% control of how you react to something sounds kind of idealistic and unrealistic. Telling yourself to consciously “take control” of your reaction to something is extremely hard, and in the moment of things it’s not as easy as we’d like, to be consciously in control of how we react.

Nevertheless on a February evening in my Grade 11 year, my mindset got put to the test:

Walking home from a long day at school, I bundled up in a black overcoat with my hands in my pockets. It was soon getting dark, and thus I found myself being one of the only people walking on the sidewalk of the bustling street beside me. As I walked, I was worrying about my marks, my appearance in school that day, and-

…My train of thought suddenly stopped, because I noticed someone who was walking really fast, approaching me from the corner of my eye. Not thinking much, I kept walking to let this stranger pass by, but already something in my gut didn’t feel quite right.

30 seconds later I’m looking at a short, middle-aged man in a hoodie pacing right beside me. I could tell he was trouble and on some kind of narcotic, so I decided to keep to myself and play oblivious.

“Hey! Who the f*ck’s side are you on?”

“Your gig is up, I know you’re a snitch.”

What the hell was this guy on about? To this day I have no idea still, but here he was, angrily yelling at me like I was a member of his rival gang or something. I began freaking out and continued to play dumb, but I knew this wouldn’t work anymore when he pulled out a sharp fold out knife out of his parka, and pointed it at me.

Much of what happened after was a blur, but I remembered an inch of logic that lingered in my head at the moment.

“He thinks you’re armed too, take your hands out of your pockets. Don’t put your hands up or else you are screwed; just show him you aren’t here to cause trouble for him.”

Following the inner dialogue, I took my hands out of my pocket. Turned to him and told him with open hands that I had no idea who he was. After cursing at me in frustration, the man left my side and crossed the street.

Gratitude for Getting Stuck Up

After getting over the shock of what happened a few hours after, I began to think normally again. Looking back, I feel an incredible amount of gratefulness for that experience.

Moments prior to almost getting stabbed, I was worrying about things that were really insignificant in the grand scheme of my life. Neither my Grade 11 marks or some kind of awesome look for that particular day, would have saved me from the receiving end of the man’s sharp combat pull out knife. I had left that experience with myself still existing, and for that I was incredibly grateful.

Now a days I look back on the experience as a benchmark for how shitty a situation can get. Whenever I feel the urge to emotionally spiral downwards because of something, I always like to ask myself:

“Is this worst than almost getting stabbed as a 16 year old?”

By turning this dangeorus experience into a constant and livid reminder to stay grateful for living, I managed to get through many other tough times with my psyche relatively well maintained. This mental model allows me to focus on helping those around me who are more effected by whatever happens, and address what I can do in a situation, rather than dwelling over what I can’t.

Following on par with the ideas of stoicism: I proved to myself that no matter how grim things could potentially get, we as individuals have the fortitude to keep going and be alive afterwards.

The Key Lessons

  • Life will get rough, and you will likely feel helpless and somewhat responsible for some things you consciously knew were out of your control.
  • Embrace reality for how it works objectively. The more you let how you think things should be working out, be engrained in your perception of reality, you are going to be brought down like hell.
  • Whenever you fear turmoil or misfortune, realize that you have been through strife before, and try to expect it. You will survive through whatever it is, just like you have time and time again with that last thing you worried about, but can’t even remember now.
  • Stay grateful for life. That shitty experience you had the put your life on the line? I argue that you should have it as a reminder to be grateful in life, and to use it as a benchmark for when you think something is really bad. If you could get through whatever that is, there’s no way you can’t get through some small thing now.

I hope you guys find my thoughts on this valuable, it’s a nice, personal break from my usual articles on genetics and my research. Stay awesome, and stay grateful.

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Michael Trịnh

Undergraduate builder & researcher @UofT in the crossroads of bioinformatics, immunology, and genome engineering.