If you’ve watched Chuck Lorre shows like the The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men you may have noticed the vanity cards shown at the end (I like to think of them as blogs for the small screen). They’re always something I look forward to and make a point of pausing the TV to read, much to the chagrin of my wife.
This year I’m diving deeper into the Stoic philosophy and learning how to apply it in my daily life. One reason is because I seem to have been independently discovering the principles for myself.
On card #516 Lorre is discussing the presidency campaign and who is promoting fear. But the part that jumped out at me was:
So the real question to ask yourself is not who or what should you be afraid of, it’s how are you doing right now. Go ahead. Ask yourself. Are you in jeopardy right now? Of course not. You’re squinting at this vanity card and perhaps wondering if there’s a clever joke at the end of it. (Spoiler alert: there is not.) This means that whatever you’re afraid of, or being encouraged to be afraid of, is in your mind. It is not in your living room, or just outside your door. You’re thinking it. Which is good news. That’s the one thing you have control over. At any moment, you can take a break from thinking scary thoughts, or, if you’re like me and have a mind run amuck, you can choose to ignore them.
Whilst I didn’t know it at the time, this idea is one of the central tenets of Stoic thought.
Some things are in our control, while others are not. We control our opinion, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything of our own doing. We don’t control our body, property, reputation, position, and, in a word, everything not of our own doing. Even more, the things in our control are by nature free, unhindered, and unobstructed, while those not in our control are weak, slavish, can be hindered, and are not our own. — Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1.1-2
We can’t control external events around us but we do control our thoughts and opinions about those events. We can choose to let them consume us or not. Our ability to make choices are the one thing that we have complete power over and which can never be completely taken away from us. As Epictetus says, we don’t even have total control over our body. We could be struck down with an illness or be thrown in prison. What then? We can control how we think about that situation. We can choose to allow ourselves to wallow in anger or sadness. Or we can accept the current state of affairs and instead direct our efforts toward improving our condition.
In short, the only thing within our circle of control is our mind. And with that knowledge and understanding comes clarity and purpose.