Lost perspective? Try this linguistic trick to reset your view

6 min read
fairly difficult
By using 'distanced self-talk', you can leverage the structure of language to take a step back and see the bigger picture
In the 2nd century CE, in the sunset of his life, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius began recording meditations on how he had lived. The questions he asked himself are the same ones many of us find ourselves asking today: how does a person live a meaningful life? How does one find resilience in the face of suffering? What does it mean to be happy?

Aurelius did not intend for Meditations to be read by others, allowing us a privileged tour through the dialogue he had with himself. Although there are recurring themes, the text reads as a series of standalone entries that vary in length from a mere sentence or two to a paragraph. In these fragments, Aurelius captured profound kernels of wisdom, many of which have been borne out by contemporary psychological research. But in addition to capturing Marcus Aurelius' insightful musings, Meditations (as translated to English from the original Greek) reveals something unusual about the man himself: his ability to shift perspective as he grappled with big ideas.

At times, Aurelius' thoughts reflected a first-person perspective, indexed through his use of the first-person singular pronoun 'I'. At other times, however, he used 'we', expressing ideas that applied not just to him, but to humankind, collectively (eg, 'Our life is a warfare, and a mere pilgrimage'). In other entries, he switched again, using the second-person singular pronoun (translated either as 'you' or as the archaic 'thou'). Rather than being used to address the reader (remember he didn't have a reader in mind), Aurelius' use of second-person pronouns reflected his tendency to consider his life as if he were in dialogue with himself – that is, addressing himself directly.

Through adopting this more distanced self-perspective, Aurelius was able to recognise that his feelings of anguish were temporary

In my research, I've studied how subtle linguistic shifts, such as these, can powerfully alter the content of our thoughts, and subsequently change the way we…
Ariana Orvell
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