Epictetus starts his Handbook with the reflection that “Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control.” The University of Exeter’s Stoic Week 2013 Handbook (a nifty nod to Epictetus’s HB) states: “Having a Stoic attitude means completely accepting that things outside of your control are outside of your control” (Stoic Week 2013 at 16).
It should be an accessible concept, one that most people have heard of before, to differentiate between what is in our control and what is not. There are certainly echoes of this in the “Serenity Prayer” written by Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Yet how do you know the difference? Accepting that some things are beyond my control is like the photo negative of my approach to life hitherto, as I have been focusing on what I have suspected is under my control, which is nearly everything. Finances? Under my control, and I need to budget myself more effectively to pay off my debt in a more expeditious manner. Health? Under my control, and if I could only avoid sugar/gluten/dairy (etc.) and eat more vegetables/protein/fiber (etc.) and supplement with fish oil/magnesium/vitamin D (etc., ad infinitum), then I will surely live to 100. Nurturing my four-year-old? Under my control, and the fact that he will go a whole weekend eating and drinking little but goldfish crackers and milk means I have not read the appropriate articles to explain how to address this, or else I have failed to find the appropriate balance between discipline and loving kindness so as to extract the results I want while not trampling on his delicate feelings.
I exaggerate, but only slightly. To acknowledge that some things are beyond my control strikes my evil twin (okay, it’s me), wrongly, as weakness. I cannot help but resent people who self-victimize and act as though they are incapable of pulling themselves up and doing the hard work that is necessary for a successful life. And yet, I take it too far. It is easy to see how an approach like mine could lead to mental and physical exhaustion.
According to the Epictetus entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “What is in our power . . . is the ‘authority over ourselves’ that we have regarding our capacity to judge what is good and what is evil. Outside our power are ‘external things,’ which are ‘indifferent’ with respect to being good or evil. These indifferents . . . number those things that are conventionally deemed to be good and those that are conventionally deemed to be bad. Roughly, they are things that ‘just happen,’ and they are not in our power in the sense that we do not have absolute control to make them occur just as we wish, or to make them have exactly the outcomes that we desire.” (Emphasis added.)
Wait, so–this means almost nothing is up to me? Correct, because I certainly do not have “absolute control” over “external things.” It is disorienting, as if you are standing on a platform surrounding by all the things in your life–your career, your “stuff,” the people you love, all of your good habits cultivated over the years, everything you have assembled in the attempt to construct a good life–and the platform caves in. All of the things in your life are still all there, but in shambles, broken . . . or so it appears at first blush. In fact, everything is intact, and you are in exactly the same position as you were before with respect to how much control you had over your life.
But when everything falls away to a heap at your feet, it makes you look to your internal resources to see the only things that have not fallen to a heap: Once again from the opening to Epictetus’s Handbook, “Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions–in short, whatever is our own doing.” It is a rather short list of items. As difficult as it might be to undertake to refine our opinions, impulses, desires and aversions so that they are a fail-safe source of strength for us, at least these things are far fewer in number than all of the other elements of life that we falsely convince ourselves are in our absolute control. I’m going to go and take a nap now that I realize I have a lot less to do in life than I thought. All I have to do is cultivate a level of arete, or moral excellence, that would make Epictetus proud. On second thought, no time for a nap.