“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”– Epictetus
Recently, I read a book about Stoicism which had a significant impact on my life.
The book is called ‘The Obstacle is the Way’ by Ryan Holiday.
Based on the ancient wisdom of people such Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus, it gives us insights how we can overcome difficulties in our modern day life.
At a time when I was struggling to manage certain issues it offered a philosophic approach that allowed me to change my perspective about the problem.
In a chapter titled “Is it up to you?” Ryan talks about ‘the things that are in our power and the things that aren’t’.
That got me thinking about how unproductive it is to believe you can change things that are not mine to change. – “Every ounce of energy directed at things we can’t actually influence is wasted”.
This post looks to explore how Stoicism can help you overcome those niggling problems that hold you back.
What is Stoicism?
I understood the basic idea of Stoicism philosophy: it goes something like don’t get overwhelmed by things you cannot control.
This makes perfect sense on so many levels.
The Stoics believed in enjoying the good things in life while warning us that we shouldn’t become slaves to our desires and wants.
The Stoics remind us to be happy with what we’ve got, with our lives as they are, rather than spending precious time chasing every possible want or desire.
But as we all know common sense is not always practical for us humans.
- Don’t spend more than you earn,
- Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today,
- Be patient,
- Don’t drink coffee after 6pm.
The reality for many of us is we are missing that thing, or inner quality, that it takes to get ourselves to action those things.
Ironically, the choice to take action is the one thing we do have control over.
The things you can control, and the things you can’t.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .” —Epictetus
In Stoic philosophy the single most important practice is distinguishing between what we can influence and what we can’t.
This teaching is credited to the great Stoic philosopher of first-century Rome, Epictetus (circa 55 – 135 AD). Remarkably, he was born into slavery. No doubt this had a big impact on his general outlook on life.
His general recommendation for a good life was simply this: Control what you can and let go of the rest.
Epictetus tells us to always differentiate between the things where we are wasting our time and energy and the things where we can make an impact.
Essentially, the only one thing we can control is ourselves.
What is up to us?
- Our emotions
- Our judgements
- Our creativity
- Our attitude
- Our perspective
- Our desires
- Our decisions
- Our determination
From Epictetus’s perspective everything else is in the hands of the gods.
It’s in the hands of the gods
Clearly we all have a vested interest in how things will turn out. But the reality is we don’t really get a big say in many of the outcomes.
Spending precious time wishing, wanting, and demanding that things be different is a remedy for personal misery.
We shouldn’t get ourselves upset over those things that are inevitable in life. There are some guarantees we will all face:
• We will get sick,
• We will face hardships,
• Death is an unavoidable truth.
According to the Stoics, all day long you should be returning our focus to the somewhat small domain where we do have some influence and control.
The importance of changing our perspective
“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.”
Trying to control the uncontrollable will always have an adverse outcome for us:
Accordingly Epictetus wrote, “People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.”
This change in perspective helps us change our viewpoint in 2 important ways:
1. When we are able to determine what is outside our control we no longer waste our time and energy trying to change it. We see it for what it is, accept it, and move on to what we can control.
2. When we are able to determine what is within our control (our beliefs, values, and actions) we are able to focus our time and energy on taking action in these areas and moving forward. This makes us much more efficient and effective.
Focus on empowerment
You might believe you already have pretty healthy approach attending to the things in your realm of control and letting go of the other stuff.
Nonetheless this type of mindset isn’t typical for the majority of humans.
Consider political economic decisions that financially impact us in some way.
Here, in Australia, the Government’s decision to stop the financial assistance payments has caused a number of people to get enraged and express strong opinions. Yet the reality of the situation is these people have little or no ability to alter the outcome.
Similarly there will always be so many situations where we are powerless:
- The weather,
- Other people emotions
We end up missing the opportunity where we can be empowered because our focus becomes preoccupied with those things where we have no influence.
We need to take the time to continually develop this essential stoic skill whereby we direct our energy each and every day solely towards things we can manage.
It ends up making life so much more simple, easy and enjoyable.
As hard as life is, the only refuge you need, or ever have, is your own will to do what you can within your own domain.
That’s all you need to attend to, all you need to think about, all you need to get good at.
There are many things we can control. We can control our actions, the goals we pursue, the values we adopt, and our mental attitudes.
So what things are up to you and what aren’t?
The practice of Stoicism is fairly new to me, however its central theme isn’t.
Buddhism has a very similar interpretation of the human state.
We reach for more control than is actually available to us thereby making our lives immensely tougher than they need to be.
I’m a big believer in this idea!
Happiness comes from learning we don’t need to control everything in our life.
You never can.
what about you?
have you adopted a Stoicism approach to life?