Learning to sleep under the stern gaze of Marcus Aurelius.
“Absolutely not,” I told my husband from the bed as he tried to find the right place on his dresser for Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. “I don’t need him staring at me all night.”
The bust was the size of a child’s head and made of white alabaster. Marcus was frozen in an expression heavy with intent to obtain eudaemonia — good will and happiness — no matter how much crap was thrown at him.
My husband didn’t tell me that he had ordered the bust of this Roman Emperor, who was also known as a Stoic philosopher. So I was surprised on the afternoon when I found him in the dining room, bent over a cardboard box, throwing tissue paper onto the mahogany table. Noticing his smile, something I rarely saw in those days, I tried to peek around him.
“What’s in there?” I asked.
“Marcus Aurelius,” he said.
He pulled Marcus out of the box not much differently from how a doctor pulls a newborn from its mother. After months of anxiety and stress over his job, he looked as though he had found peace. That evening, the bust made its way to our bedroom.
My husband is the owner of eight coffee shops in and around Boston that barely survived the pandemic. In 2021, when his company was still offering takeout service only, his employees announced that they were forming a union. He was caught off-guard but voluntarily recognized the union, without a vote. He also published an opinion article in a local media outlet expressing his support for his employees’ efforts.
Then came negotiations. He walked into the sessions with the hope that common ground would be found. Over the following months, it became clear to him that the contract demands would result in the near doubling of his labor costs, threatening to shutter the company he had started 25 years earlier. His stress levels soared.
Phone calls with his attorney replaced lunch, and he had little interest in dinner. “You have to eat,” I told him. He was naturally tall and lean, and couldn’t afford to go on a stress diet.
At night the bed lurched with his restlessness. When he did fall asleep, he often awoke at 3 a.m., calculating his labor costs in his head. Sometimes the worries kept him up until the sun cut through the windows of our pink colonial, the home he was worried we might lose.
A native New Yorker, raised with a built-in sense of unease, and part of a long line of anxious Jews, I was well-versed in living with the constant thrum of my own small worries. But I understood that shutting down the business he had built meant something larger to him. I begged him to speak to a therapist.
A few Zoom sessions in, the therapist leaned in toward his camera and said, “Let’s talk about philosophy.” Philosophy, he told my husband, helps us metabolize our suffering and maintain a sense of well-being.
It wasn’t long until my husband was quoting Marcus Aurelius to me.
“What if the snowstorm is bad and school is canceled?” I said one winter morning, worried that I wouldn’t be able to work on freelance assignments with the kids at home.
“You have power over your mind, not outside events,” he said. “Realize this, and you will find strength.”
I rolled my eyes and headed to my laptop.
I couldn’t deny that my habit of overthinking was sometimes exhausting. And the idea of approaching life’s obstacles with a seeming indifference sounded tempting. I admittedly was trying to achieve the equanimity of a stoic philosopher, at least in part, through my daily Prozac.
On the other hand, my writing rises from the ashes of my everyday concerns about motherhood, health issues and what others thought about me. I mull over my anxieties while showering, and often enough these showers ended with an idea for an article. I couldn’t imagine losing all sense of worry. Anxiety is my muse.
No matter how many times my husband offered me Stoic wisdom, which seemed to me like turning off my brain, I shook my head. What kind of writer would I be if I didn’t let my emotions get the better of me? As Epictetus said, in a line quoted by my husband, “You become what you give your attention to.” My husband was learning not to become his stress, while I try to give mine my full attention.
While I didn’t feel the need to live my life according to Stoic precepts, I let him keep the bust on the dresser. If Marcus Aurelius watching him sleep offered him some comfort, then I had to let it go.
Every morning he woke up and reminded himself that “man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.” I soon forgot that Marcus was perched up there, watching me. Maybe judging me. But that’s probably just my anxiety talking.
Megan Margulies is a journalist and memoirist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, New York and Vogue.