We find ourselves in a constant battle to maintain our identity against the increasing pressures of externals. They are all around us and they will not diminish if we don’t combat them. This does not escape me, for I find myself dealing with outside influences all the time. And they are often created by myself. Where my mind and my thoughts create or add weight to what is happening outside of my sphere of influence. Our wants and desires and that which we wish to avoid, are fed to us by the world around us. It is in these moments that the teachings of Stoicism can help us and protect us. By looking at what matters and where our control lies, we can learn to arm ourselves and take on the forces that wish to crush us.
This can sound like an appeal to action and it is. It’s time to ground ourselves in who we are and find out where our true priorities lie. We will examine different areas of life that are trying to keep us away from being our true selves. And the externals that are connected to them. As we go over some of these, I asked you to apply an honest and sincere examination of yourself. To take an inventory of how they affect you.
Guard off the externals
It’s time to fortify our minds from what is attacking us and build the resilience to stay closer to our nature. It’s too precious to let it slip away. Because before we know it we are caught in its clutches and the way to escape seems impossible. If you feel that’s where you are, then remember that we can set ourselves free at any moment. But it’s not an easy process. There is a way and we need to find it.
We will start with figuring out what the externals are. In the post on What We Control, you can find a more detailed take on this topic. Here we will highlight the words of Epictetus as depicted by Arrian in the Handbook. An important cornerstone concept of Stoicism worth repeating.
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is our own action. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever is not our action. The things that are up to us are by nature free, unhindered and unimpeded; but those that are not up to us are weak, servile, subject to hindrance, and not our own.”Epictetus, The handbook, 1
Everything outside our mind
What it comes down to is that everything outside of ourselves, our mind that is, is external. What we can identify as internal are our thoughts, our opinions, and our judgments. Our actions also fall in the sphere of our control. They are affected by the externals and that’s why we need to fortify our minds and have a better understanding of who we are. Knowing ourselves is key in the process. These outside factors leave impressions on us. It is then up to us to apply our reasoning faculty and come up with rational judgments on what they are. We need to learn to view them for their true nature.
This post builds on the ideas of my earlier writing on What is Success. But here we will take a different approach. We will look from the outside in. Instead of determining how we define these concepts, we will look at how the world would like us to view them and what we can do about those ideas. The externals we will look at here are status, wealth, money, and alcohol. We all have different views on them, which isn’t bad because we all have our own lives to live. Yet, we are part of a community and most people prefer not to stand out. That’s why it is often safer to follow the ideas that society wants us to have on these topics.
What kind of external is status? It includes words like success, possession, reputation, etc. But why is this something that people yearn for and chase their entire lives? If we imagine someone with some kind of status, we tend to look up to them. They are not on our level and if they are, they are closer to making the jump to the next one. They lead and take on more responsibility than we want to take. This is not a bad thing, and some have status as a by-product of what they are inclined to do. It takes a turn when it is the status we want and we will do anything to obtain it. When it goes from a preferred indifference to a want. So why is it so desirable?
We want to be seen and have the idea that we live meaningful lives. For some, that means getting attention, having people think they are special, or walking around the world with a fancy title behind their name. And that’s what the world is promoting, to have more and more credentials. It makes people look different from one another and stand out while remaining in the same societal sphere. But it’s an external factor.
We are seeking approval and recognition for our work. It’s our ego that we are feeding here. The problem is that it often comes at a price. One we pay with our individuality and personality. Since others award us status, because they need to accept this title, we need to behave in certain ways to meet that approval. Status is given and taken away quite fast, which makes it an unstable factor of life. We thus become slaves of the opinion of others.
Wealth is another external that the world around us has identified for us. One result of wealth can be status, the one we saw before. But this is more focused on the things we have and how much of it we can show to those around us. It’s not enough to own things, they need to be branded and shiny. Social media has made it far easier for us to share what we have. And like with status, we need to be better than each other.
But it’s also a tool to lure people in and have them do what you want them to do. It works because we have labeled a big house, a fancy sports car, an expensive holiday, or being able to eat luxurious food, as symbols of living a good life. If we see someone with any of these things we think that they have made it.
Mind your judgment
Our judgment here eludes us from a possible harsh reality. We don’t know what this person is required to do to have these things. And let’s say they don’t need to do anything for it, how much value would they give to it? They could be living in constant fear of losing it. Let’s remember the story of the Sword of Damocles. Wealth is not a bad thing to want, but we have to make sure we have the correct definition of this concept.
One that fits our nature and not what others think it should mean. Seneca pointed out that time is our most precious commodity, which it is. Wouldn’t true wealth mean being able to experience your time how you want to? To be free from having to account your actions to someone else. This is what Stoicism helps you to achieve. By living virtuously and in accordance with your nature, you can live a free life.
This external factor needs to be on this list. If Seneca talked about time being our most valuable commodity, he would’ve laughed at the expression: ‘Time is money.’ But for most people on this planet, this is exactly how they view it. They exchange their time to earn more, which they spend on the little time they have to themselves. Most of the jobs that we do to earn this means of exchange are our inventions to make sure people can earn money.
Thus, we should ask ourselves what money means to us. What we do know is that we need more of it, all the time more. And if we have, we need to make sure we don’t lose it. The other side of the coin thinks money is evil. That’s because we feel that we can’t ever have that much as the top. It creates a divide in our society, between the haves and have-nots.
An external to rupture society
An external, like this, that can rupture society, should be seen as an evil. Yet, it can also do a lot of good. It helps people to trade their goods and buy the things that they miss in their communities. We need to see money as a tool, to remove the view that it is necessary to live a happy life. Chasing it will crush us along the way. It can destroy our souls and rob us of our freedom if we give it that power.
Or we can view it as something that can help us be part of society. To interact and exchange with others, and help us obtain our basic needs without asking for aid from others. But it is not the means to happiness or to living a content life. We have everything within ourselves to do that. If we learn to focus on our own behavior, then we will be able to find peace and fall in line with Nature.
The external to numb our most powerful tool, the mind. This one could be about other substances, such as drugs, but I don’t have any experience with them myself. I do however used to be a heavy social drinker. The problem was that when I started drinking in social settings, there were no limits. And this is the part of alcohol that I want to touch on, the social lubricant image that it has. Try going out with friends and telling them you don’t drink. Can you imagine their reactions?
We are almost pushed to drink or use other substances to be able to be part of a social community. If we don’t, we can be seen as weird or outcasts. Now, I have to add that this often plays a big part in the mind of the person trying to quit. But something like alcohol is external since we don’t need it to be happy. It can do us more harm than anything else. Ask yourself how you feel the day after a great party.
Whether or not you should drink is a decision you have to make. If you can keep it at one to take the edge off to function in a group, then that’s awesome. Moreover, if you don’t need it, but if it makes it all a little easier. But, and you’ll know if this is you if you drink one and then it’s bottoms up until the sun comes up. During this time you lose control over yourself and the next few days you feel sick, then the price to pay is too high.
Curb the externals
In many cases, this external source of happiness or joy has the exact opposite effect in the long run. The evening might be fun for a few hours, but after that, we can start to feel bad about ourselves. However, the common opinion is that this is the only way we can remain a part of the community we’re part of. But from personal experience, you might lose some friends, but the ones that accept you and even encourage you, are the only ones you’ll ever need. Reconsider the role alcohol plays in your life and take an objective view of it.
Examine these externals for yourself. There might be others you’ll be able to identify after reading this. Ask yourself what kind of influence they have on you and what price you pay for them. Living a good life shouldn’t depend on external factors. We should be able to use who we are, learn to follow our nature, and stay true to ourselves, to be the best version we can be. This is not the easiest path to follow. There will be a lot of resistance from people who feel we are walking on our own, outside of society. Yet, because we are going our own way, the virtuous one, we can set the right example for the people who are trapped in the herd. It’s our duty to show them that it is possible. As we learn to subdue these externals, we can remain strong and face them head-on.
“The mind is that which is roused and directed by itself. It makes of itself what it chooses. It makes what it chooses of its own experience.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 6.8