“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
Photo by Mahdi Bafande on Unsplash

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.

Emotional eggs
Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

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

A  classic Mustang in the woods. My dream car but no in my control.
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

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.

On What we Control

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.

If you are interested in other philosophers, you can read my introductions on Marcus AureliusSeneca, or Michel de Montaigne. Here you can read my take on Stoicism.

On What We Control
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9 thoughts on “On What We Control

  • 19 March 2022 at 10:35

    This blog reminded me again that there are more people out there trying to live a more peaceful life. I tried to share this mindset but I had little luck – something I can’t control and I had to learn to accept it and make a decision about it. It’s not like we deny the negative but we try to resignify it or find a good balance between “positive” and “negative”. It takes a great amount of inner training sometimes to come out of what might be called the “victim” mentality, where everything seems to be out of control. There is great wisdom in learning what’s under our control and in taking responsibility for the course of our life. These blog posts are magically confirming that I’m doing the best I can right now – thank you. It’s funny I only appreciate old cars and found my favorite model in here so it’s a double confirmation.

  • 20 March 2022 at 10:39

    Knowing what’s in your circle of control and what is not, is the first step. Next comes the reaction, if at all. What sets people apart is their reactions to things that happen in life. Things happen to everyone. Some will rise to anger, some will slump with despair… As stoicism says (I think) the best reaction is no reaction at all. In the beginning, you may be able to conceal the reaction and keep it private – good, but true mastery is actually not letting it affect you. Easier said than done! It reminds me of a quote from a poem by Rudyard Kipling ‘If’, ‘If you can keep you head, when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…if you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue or walk with kings nor lose the common touch…if neither foes not friends can hurt you… Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it. What’s more you’ll be a man my son’. He’s essentially talking about keeping a cool head in any circumstance. Gaining control of our emotions and reactions to things is a powerful tool to gaining the life we want.

    • 20 March 2022 at 10:52

      Thank you, Viv. That is a beautiful quote and sounds very stoical indeed. As you said, once we know what we can control, we can decide on what the best reaction is and what it really means to us. From there we can judge what reaction is appropriate to the situation and sometimes it is indeed no reaction at all.

  • 24 March 2022 at 23:35

    Reading this I thought of this story I read once. This is, for me, a nice example, of what I interpret when I read your blogpost:

    This is the story of an old Chinese farmer who lived many years ago.
    He had one old horse that he used to plough his fields.
    One day, the horse ran away into the hills.
    Everyone said, “We are so sorry for your bad luck.”
    The old man replied, “Bad luck, good luck, who knows?”
    A week later, the horse returned with a herd of wild horses, which now belonged to
    the old man.
    Everyone said, “We are so happy for your good luck!”
    The old man replied, “Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”
    While his only son was riding one of the wild horses, he fell off and broke his leg.
    Everyone said, “What bad luck!”
    The old man replied, “Bad luck, good luck, who knows?”
    One day, the army came to the village, and took all the strong young men to be
    soldiers for the emperor.
    Only the old farmer’s son was spared, because he could not fight with a broken leg.
    Everyone said, “What good luck!”
    The old man replied, “Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”

    Die avond kwamen de dorpelingen bij de Chinese boer op bezoek om hun medelijden te betuigen. “Wat vreselijk!” zeiden ze: “Hoe moet het nu met het land? Je paard verloren, wat een ongeluk!”

    Maar de boer glimlachte rustig en zei: “Geluk of ongeluk? Wie zal het zeggen? Het enige dat ik weet, is dat het paard is weggelopen.”

    De dag daarna gingen de boer en zijn zoon weer aan het werk op het land en voor enige tijd maakten ze er het beste van. Tot op een dag het paard weer kwam aangelopen. En in zijn kielzog nam hij een kudde van tien wilde paarden mee!

    Die avond kwamen de dorpelingen weer bijeen om hun gelukswensen te geven: “Wat een geluk! Wat geweldig! Je bezit zo maar vertienvoudigd!”

    Maar de boer glimlachte rustig en zei: “Geluk of ongeluk? Wie zal het zeggen? Het enige dat ik weet, is dat mijn paard weer terug is en dat er tien andere paarden bij zijn.”

    De volgende dag wilde de zoon proberen of hij de paarden kon temmen en klom op de rug van een wild paard. Deze was hier echter niet van gediend en bokte net zolang totdat de zoon met een flinke smak op de grond belandde en beide benen brak.

    Die avond stonden de dorpelingen weer op de stoep: “Wat vreselijk! Je zoon! Beide benen gebroken! Nu kan hij niet helpen op het land! Wat een ongeluk! Hoe moet dat nu?”

    Maar de boer glimlachte rustig en zei: “Geluk of ongeluk? Wie zal het zeggen? Het enige dat ik weet, is mijn zoon zijn beide benen gebroken heeft.”

    De volgende dag kwam er bericht dat er een oorlog was uitgebroken en dat alle jongemannen die daartoe in staat waren zich onmiddellijk moesten melden om een leger te vormen.

    En de boer glimlachte rustig en dacht ….

    • 25 March 2022 at 16:49

      Hi Gabby,

      Thank you for sharing that amazing story with us. It is exactly in line with what I tried to mention in this reflection on what we see as good or bad. What a lovely story!

      Dankje Zus!

  • 26 March 2022 at 05:34

    Thank you for sharing this! In reading, I’ve realized I’ve never stopped to think about what I can control versus those that I cannot and how they affect my being. This post provided me the opportunity to reflect, accept, and move forward towards a more peaceful life.

    • 26 March 2022 at 07:45

      That’s awesome to hear and thank you for your comment. I’m really glad it helped you in a positive way. It was a major step for me, too. To realize what is in my control and what isn’t. Always great to hear I am not the only one.

      Thanks again, Christina, for sharing.

  • 28 March 2022 at 13:57

    This is so interesting. I’m quite a controlling person and struggle with factors completely outside my control. But I’m slowly getting better at dealing with it.

    • 28 March 2022 at 20:25

      Thank you for your comment. It’s exciting to hear that you are getting better at it.


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