On dealing with the ungrateful

Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations, instructed himself this way:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.

Given Marcus’ other writings, this seems like a harsh judgement of his fellow men. Marcus, like other Stoics, believed in reserving harshness for himself. He also believed in being unsurprised by people behaving according to their nature. So, how should we deal with the ungrateful in our lives?

A completely different quote came to mind when I was thinking about this. I studied King Lear in school, and like many of Shakespeare’s works, it has many “quotable” quotes. The relevant one is “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” As the father of teenage daughters, I can empathise with this one, although none of them have yet accused me of outright senility. It can seem that no matter what we do as parents, our children have already moved on to the next thing they want or need without acknowledging our efforts.

As we go about our day, we may hold doors for others or let them into traffic ahead of us, only for the gesture or effort to go unacknowledged. At work, we may help a colleague with a project or go out of our way to support a leader with a problem they have. We may not receive what we consider to be the appropriate recognition for this or none at all. People can seem happy to benefit from the fruits of our labours without giving us credit for them.

All of this can feel heartily unfair and lead to us being less likely to offer this kind of assistance in the future. We could become bitter and determined only to do what benefits us directly. But there is something to consider beyond our hurt feelings.

As with many quotes taken out of context, the one I started this post with continues with additional language that shifts its focus and clarifies where Marcus is coming from. Marcus reminds himself that he knows the difference between good and evil, that the other person is his “brother in nature”, and that he must remember how to work with them. A common theme in Marcus’ writing is that we can and must choose how we deal with challenging events and people.

In addition, it is often our ego that causes us to want recognition for doing good deeds for others. Marcus reminds himself, and by extension, we as his readers, that we are insignificant in the overall scheme of things (and remember, he was a Roman emperor). Therefore, our ego is ridiculous in assuming we deserve admiration or recognition.

He exhorts himself to do the right thing and remember that doing good should be its own reward.

Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honoured.

For us, too, we must remember to be grateful for all we have and not become someone who fails to recognise the good deeds done for us by others. Because while a good deed should be its own reward, our social brain craves recognition and seeks to belong. So, regardless of ingratitude (or sometimes ignorance) on the part of our fellows, we can choose to be grateful. Life is too short to be otherwise.

Voiced by Amazon Polly

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Click to access the login or register cheese