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Stoicism 1: What We Can and What We Cannot Control

I have recently become somewhat engrossed with an often forgotten but remarkably relevant ancient school of thought–Stocism. Amidst the prevailing zeitgeist that runs rampant throughout today’s popular media, entertainment, culture and even some literature, an idea best embodied in a very simple expression–You Only Live Once (Y.O.L.O.)–Stoicism provides an alternative worldview. It’s a strong challenge to what some seem to think is YOLO’s uncontested claim on being the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

For me, Stoicism is a welcomed antidote to the shortsighted, unexamined philosophy many of our generation unknowingly embrace as the only possible reality. While Stoicism may not be the total, absolute truth in and of itself, it is a comforting reminder–a breathe of fresh air–that reality is inherently more complex, more delicate, and more beautiful than believing the zenith of human existence is to party like rock stars, achieve to an ever-increasing echelon of human success, or to consume as much pleasure as possible.

In anticipation of the accusation that I’m grossly oversimplifying in order to setup a straw-man argument of sorts, I can only reply that my intention here is not to forward any systematic (or particularly persuasive) denunciation of any school of thought. Fortunately (or maybe “unfortunately”), I’m not convinced that I’m the right person or that this is even the right forum in which to launch a full, frontal assault on any worldview. My intention in this post, and what will likely be in a few subsequent posts, is to merely share some passages and excerpts from Stoic writings that I found to be rather insightful, relevant to life in today’s world, and exciting. Take them for what they’re worth. What I am trying to do is start a dialogue and hear from you whether you find the ideas the Stoics favored as truth to be germane and/or helpful to your daily life.

I should note that Stoicism is greatly misunderstood and in modern culture commonly connotes emotionlessness or a sterility of personality. It’s really neither of these and at it’s center is about a precise understanding of what you can and what you cannot control in the world, knowing to which category a particular circumstance or situation belongs, and acting accordingly to lay a foundation for a virtuous and happy life. Here’s a great example from one of the thought leaders of Stoicism (who, by the way, had been a Greek slave):

Do not seek to bring things to pass in accordance with your wishes, but wish for them as they are, and you will find them. — Epictetus

Here’s another from Epictetus’ Enchiridion:

We get disappointed because sometimes we what we desires is beyond our control. So be in the habit of always distinguishing between what we can and what we cannot control, and only desire that which we can control. We should feel neutral towards what we cannot control. 

In case you cannot bear the suspense and are asking yourself what are things we can control versus things we cannot control, don’t worry. Epictetus is refreshingly pragmatic and rarely leaves a reader hanging:

This [things we cannot control] includes aging and death and the many other unpleasant facts of life that cannot be avoided. Accept the reality of these things and refuse to worry about them. Instead, put all your efforts into improving those things that you can control.

The list of things we cannot control goes on and on to include things like outward success, our financial standing, our worldly accomplishments, whether or not you become rich, your body, your family. In fact, there is a pretty slim, yet powerful, set of things we actually can control. Former US Marine, Joel Mendez gives a somewhat humorous but clear example of idea in action in his article entitled The Modern Wimp’s Introduction to Stoicism:

Epictetus, another great Stoic who happened to be a slave, counseled “Do not seek to bring things to pass in accordance with your wishes, but wish for them as they are, and you will find them.” This is another tenet of Stoicism that sort of escapes modern interpretations. What you take from this one is this: you’re not going to be the action hero that bends the world to his will, instead, you’re going to be the action hero who grins and bears it when his stupid boss gives his cousin what would have been your job. Trust me, the latter is infinitely preferable to the former.

More thoughts to come in periodic posts, some of which will drill down into tenants and concepts I briefly touched upon in this introductory post. Please let me know what you think!!