One morning in the middle of the second century AD, the most powerful man in the world was awakened by his orderly.
It could have been in his tent on the front lines of the war in Germania.
It could have been somewhere along his frequent and arduous travels across the empire — in Asia Minor or Syria, Egypt, Greece, or Austria.
But chances are it was at the palace in Rome.
It was early. So early.
The sun still hid. It was cool and dark and quiet.
Like any normal person, a deep part of Marcus did not want to wake up, instead wanting to “huddle under the blankets and stay warm,” he would say. It was nicer there. Easier there.
But then he caught himself. “Is this what I was created for?” he said to himself. To feel nice? To have it easy?
“I have to go to work — as a human being,” he said, hauling his feet up and onto the floor. “Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants, and the spiders and the bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can?” he said to himself but also to us. “And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?”
I first read a passage from Marcus Aurelius about this in his Meditations when I was 19 years old. It was before I dropped out of college, and I was having a similar back-and-forth with myself most mornings. Stuck in an early class I could never seem to get motivated for, my lower self desperately wanted to blow it off. So it was amazing to read the most powerful man in the world chiding himself for wanting to stay in bed. A guy reluctant to get out from under the blankets and put his feet on the cold floor — just like the rest of us. I printed out the full passage and put it on the wall next to my desk.
At the time, that advice was a helpful reminder to myself to get off my ass, to stop being lazy, and to work hard. It was an important early lesson in discipline. As I said in Discipline is Destiny, this decision we make in the morning, it not only determines how our day will go but it determines who we are.
It was early, always early, when Toni Morrison awoke to write. In the dark, she would move…