As a youth, my parents were always supportive of any endeavours my sister and I chose to chase. From art classes, boy or girl scouts, band, or tee-ball, my parents were there to help us follow our youth-filled passions. What sticks out in my mind is the response we’d get when we had an accomplishment of note: roughly translated from Spanish “congratulations son, but don’t forget that there’s always someone better than you, so keep working hard.”
Reading this may sound like my parents shot us down to keep us grounded but I assure you the truth is a little more complicated than that. As immigrants, my parents looked to fit in and not cause a ruckus. They were happy to be in the States and didn’t want any problems. This, in turn, was passed on to me. A different approach to teaching humility but it worked! This idea that there is always someone better or someone accomplishing more has stuck with me throughout my life. Never letting my own ego flare up too much.
Recently, I had the surreal and immense pleasure of being a guest on The Kelly Clarkson show; a sub-guest if you will. The appearance had to do with my employer’s policies on compensation and how it has impacted the employees of said company. As a self-proclaimed “nobody” and alternatively “the most average human across the board,” coming home, seeing the segment air, and hearing the rush of compliments and comments about my “performance” was fodder for my ego. Was I really that great? Do I ride this high? What does a normal-every day person do with this kind of attention?
I always have my copy of Meditations in my bag regardless of where I’m going: gym, grocery store, The Kelly Clarkson Show, or work. On the plane ride to Los Angeles and the plane ride home, I took my travel companion out and scanned the pages to see what wisdom Marcus Aurelius had to share with me. He’s been through it all, he had to have something for me right? Of course, he did, and he didn’t disappoint.
While I wouldn’t use the word “fame” to describe what I went through at all, here are some things Marcus Aurelius shared with me about fame, praise, and humility.
On fame: look at the minds [of those who aspire to it] and see what they are like, and what sort of things that they flee from and what they pursue. And reflect, too, that just as sand dunes are always drifting over one another and concealing what came before, so in life also, what comes earlier is very swiftly hidden by all that piles up afterwards.— Meditations 7:34
There is a constant reminder in Meditations that things change and that it is not necessarily a bad thing. On top of that, there are few reminders that we, along with our words and actions, will be forgotten. So live a good life now, with no worry over how or even if it will be remembered.
It’s bizarre to think that someone who regularly criticized fame and being remembered is still relevant some two-thousand years later. To his credit, Marcus Aurelius often mentioned of the infinite time that came before us and the time to come after us. In the grand scheme of things, a couple of millennia is not that much time. I am simply thankful that his words lasted this long as they have been of immense assistance in me leading a better life.
Everything that is in any way beautiful is beautiful of itself and complete in itself, and praise has no part in it; for nothing comes to be better or worse for being praised…Which of these is beautiful because it is praised, or becomes any less so if criticized? Does an emerald become any worse if nobody praises it? Or gold, ivory, purple, a lyre, a sword, a blossom, or a bush?— Meditations 4:20
As I flew over desert sands of Nevada this passage reminded me of the adage that money does not change people nor does it make them good or evil, it simply highlights the holder’s traits and magnifies them. Coming home to friends, family, and coworkers showering me with compliments was a very odd experience. Typically when I have accomplished something of note it is noticed by a small handful of people. In this instance, I was also receiving very kind and thoughtful messages from strangers on the internet. I had to re-read this passage to remind myself that regardless of the kind nature of the correspondence from people that I either love, respect, or have never met, the person I have cultivated was there before the kind words. Had this television appearance never happened I’d still be the same person regardless of someone noticing. We hold our “beauty” regardless of praise. The same “beauty” resides in us whether noticed, praised, or criticized.
All is ephemeral, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.— Meditations 4:35
The concept of being remembered is one that drives several humans. Many of us work to have an impact on the world hoping, dreaming, and wishing that our name will reverberate through time. People will speak of us fondly and share stories of our accomplishments. Yet, if I am no longer among the living, what good will it do me to have people speak my name? It’s a jarring and hard to swallow truth. It won’t matter to me at all; I won’t even notice. Within a generation or two, the body attached to my name will be forgotten. In an even more topical reality, let’s forget about generations after we’re gone and think about the present. How many people in this world have no idea who I am? If that’s not a humbling thought, I’m not sure what is. While all things are ephemeral, I’m still going to work to live the best life I can without worrying about who will remember me.
The idea of fame isn’t something us “normies” have to regularly contend with, but the wisdom Marcus Aurelius shares about it, along with his words on praise and humility will serve us all well as we navigate our way through life. Doing our best not to be remembered but to unpretentiously be our best.