All Commentary
Sunday, July 28, 2019

What “Bagel Guy” Chris Morgan Could Learn from Epictetus

In his teachings, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus stressed that our thinking is the sole arbiter of how we experience our life.

Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash

Like millions of viewers, you may have watched the viral video of a bagel shop customer having an epic meltdown.

Chris Morgan, perceiving he was being mocked for his short height by a female employee, launched into a thundering misogynistic denunciation of women.

When interviewed about his behavior, Morgan was unrepentant. He expressed no regret, insisting his history of rejection by women caused his poor conduct.

Morgan is eager to extend his 15 minutes of fame. He just signed a contract to box another viral video star in Atlantic City in September.

Morgan is eager to extend his 15 minutes of fame. He just signed a contract to box another viral video star in Atlantic City in September.

The bagel shop tirade was not Morgan’s first rodeo. In a video, Chris Morgan Against the World, he proudly displays a collection of his “are you talking to me” encounters.

Create Your Own Merit

Milton Friedman was the same height as Chris Morgan. Perhaps, like Morgan, Milton Friedman was bullied as a child about his height. As an adult, if Friedman had thoughts about his height, he didn’t pay those thoughts much heed. He was building an enriching marriage with Rose and a historic career. A free person, he wrote in Capitalism and Freedom, believes “in his own responsibility for his own destiny.”

Effective people don’t define themselves by their height, their weight, or their skin color. Their problems, their personality, their grievances take a back seat to what life is asking of them.

The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus pointed to the human predicament:

Over and over again, we lose sight of what is important and what isn’t. We crave things over which we have no control, and are not satisfied by the things within our control.

Epictetus observed,

One of the signs of the dawning of moral progress is the gradual extinguishing of blame. We see the futility of finger-pointing. The more we examine our attitudes and work on ourselves, the less we are apt to be swept away by stormy emotional reactions in which we seek easy explanations for unbidden events.

We can’t control what other people think of us. In Epictetus’s words, “Other people think what they will think; it is of no concern to us. No Shame. No Blame.”

Chris Morgan doesn’t like what he assumes other people are thinking of him. Reality is, Morgan doesn’t like his thinking about being short. He then imagines what others are thinking and claims they are the villains.

The more thinking about personal limits and what others think of our limits, the less mental bandwidth we have for our own efforts to improve our life. Epictetus counsels,

Never depend on the admiration of others. There is no strength in it. Personal merit cannot be derived from an external source. It is not to be found in your personal associations, nor can it be found in the regard of other people. It is a fact of life that other people, even people who love you, will not necessarily agree with your ideas, understand you, or share your enthusiasms. Grow up! Who cares what other people think about you!

Epictetus’s Most Important Principle

Sharon Lebell’s book The Art of Living contains selections from Epictetus’s Enchiridion and Discourses. Lebell explains,

Epictetus believed that the primary job of philosophy is to help ordinary people effectively meet the everyday challenges of daily life.

In his teachings, Epictetus stressed that our thinking is the sole arbiter of how we experience our life. “Things and people [may] not [be] what we wish them to be,” yet our power of choice is intact:

When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it.

What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.

Things themselves don’t hurt or hinder us. Nor do other people. How we view these things is another matter. It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble.

In short, “We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” “Stop scaring yourself” with your thinking, Epictetus implored.

Your Wake-Up Calls

At least in the theater of our mind, most of us have traveled Chris Morgan’s path. In a silent mental rant, we’ve been the hero doing battle with an unjust world.

Watch your mind as it flits from fragments of thoughts to imaginary scenarios to theories about who did what to whom and who is to blame. Rather than actionable information, treat these thoughts as wake-up calls. You are being agitated by your imaginings; it is time to wake up to reality. Epictetus puts it this way:

If it is our feelings about things that torment us rather than the things themselves, it follows that blaming others is silly. Therefore, when we suffer setbacks, disturbances, or grief, let us never place the blame on others, but on our own attitudes.

Every day, one’s thinking provides many wake-up calls. As soon as you release your thinking, notice how self-generated negative feelings vanish. You have to rehearse your thinking to sustain the upset and ruin your day, your week, or your life. The bagel shop guy has spent a lifetime convincing himself that his thoughts are providing an accurate presentation of reality.

We can build a life based on thoughts of our limitations and grievances, or we can grow up and build on our efforts and merits.

An essential part of the art of living is letting go of slights before they move in and become long-term tenants in our mind. With an acknowledgment of what our grievances are costing us, we can give an eviction notice to grievances that have already moved in.

“Circumstances do not rise to meet our expectations,” so moment by moment we are at a crossroads.

When we blame others, in our mind, we simultaneously strengthen our grievances. Those we blame can be our greatest teachers. Aware of our blaming, the mistaken content of our thinking is revealed to us and we see the barriers we, not others, have created to a life of purpose.

“Every habit and faculty is preserved and increased by its corresponding actions,” taught Epictetus. We can build a life based on thoughts of our limitations and grievances, or we can grow up and build on our efforts and merits.

Epictetus advised,

Wherever you find yourself and in whatever circumstances, give an impeccable performance.

As free people, it is our responsibility and our destiny to play our part with honor.

  • Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. 

    To receive Barry's essays subscribe at his Substack, Mindset Shifts.

    His essays also appear at the American Institute for Economic Research, Intellectual Takeout, Learn Liberty, The Epoch Times and many other publications. Barry’s essays have been translated into many languages, most frequently Spanish and Portuguese. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership.

    Barry holds a Ph.D. in economics from Rutgers University and a B.S. in mathematical statistics from CCNY.