“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our actions.”Epictetus, the handbook of Epictetus, 1
Events happen to us all the time. Some have less and others have more impact on our lives. But the Stoics would tell us that external events should have no impact on us. Or that we should not allow them to have more influence on us than they do. That is what Epictetus is saying here. We must understand what is in our control and what is not.
Nothing else is under our control
Our own actions are what we control. He even explains what we can consider as our own actions. Things like opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, etc. All these are internal and come from our minds. Nothing else is under our control.
Even if we take good care of our bodies, we can still fall ill. Our house has all the safety measures, but it can still collapse during some disaster. These are all outside of our control and not of our concern. I know that is easier said than done. Here I think it is important to remember that the stoics usually described the sage, a perfect example of their philosophy, something to aim at.
It’s out to get everyone
If something happens to us, most of the time there is an instinctual reaction. And Stoicism helps us to acknowledge and deal with this emotional response in an objective manner. It encourages us to take a more rational look at the situation. After we do this, we can address what happened to us with a clearer mind.
Our impressions label the external events as good or bad, but they are random occurrences. Since these can happen to anyone, we should not be surprised when they happen to us. It also shows us that the universe is not out to get us, it is out to get everyone.
The question of who owns who
Why did Epictetus start his Enchiridion, his handbook, with this statement? For him, this was one of the key concepts to understand in order to be free and live a peaceful and content life. If we can understand what we can control, then we can also see what might control us. We might finally be in a situation where we can buy the item that we have long wanted to possess. Now, what would happen if this thing gets stolen or breaks. How would we feel then? If this causes us too much distress, then we can question who owns who. The object and what happens to it, controls us, instead of us seeing it for what it is, an object.
Another point on what we can’t control is the opinion of others. For a long time, I have been heavily influenced by what I thought people might think of me. This limited me in my actions and made me hold back on sharing my views. I still find it difficult sometimes. This is one of the reasons why I started The Stoic Padawan. I can put my ideas out there and test them to the views of others. By doing so I can train myself to better deal with the opinions of others.
Train our minds to control ourselves
My attitude is to not have them affect me negatively but to look at what they might mean to me. If there is some truth in them, then I can make changes in order to improve myself. You, the reader, are more than welcome to disagree with me. It would be my pleasure to hear your views and discuss them. But in the end, it is up to both of us to determine how we let it affect us.
Let’s approach the topic of control as a training program. First, think back to some event in the past. Examine your initial reaction and then see if you still think the same about it. Was it as bad as you first thought? Can you learn from it? Moving back to the present, when you feel something overwhelms you, try this.
Stop for a second when you feel strong emotions bubbling up. Take a deep breath and evaluate the situation. Then use the first step to project this current event into the future and ask yourself how you might look back on this in a few years. Things usually don’t appear as bad once we passed through them. After this, decide on the action, which could mean simply enduring it with resolve.
Remember, Stoicism is all about living a peaceful life. We try to reduce the impact of negative emotions and opinions. It is therefore important to train our minds. To assess the events that we first perceive as bad and then take another look. As we are but mere humans, let’s strive to minimize the moments we feel sad or angry. We should see them for what they are; random events that happen to us outside of our control.