Accepting what you can control (and what you cannot)
In part one of this series I covered the key discipline of changing your perception. Another core concept in Stoicism is circle of control. Again, I’ll let Epictetus, one of the more famous ancient Stoics, explain:
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
While there is some more nuance to it, in a nutshell, he is saying that you get to choose the choices you make, and everything else is not wholly within your control. That’s right, you are not entirely in control of your body, your property or reputation. You are not in full control of whether you get sick, you can be locked up, and your property can be taken away from you. Your reputation is what others think of you. None of these things are completely within your control.
What you can control in a crisis
What you are in control of are your thoughts and actions. Right now, you can make positive choices to help. You can choose to follow the advice of people with more knowledge of these matters. You can think carefully about which news sources to monitor for accurate, non-sensationalism reporting. You can also make sure you are not complicit in spreading inaccurate information and help to ensure people around you understand too.
You cannot control whether or not you contract the virus. Still, you can make sure you take as many sensible precautions as possible to minimise the risk. You can also make plans ahead of time so that if it should occur, you are prepared and less prone to panic unnecessarily. When you take this kind of view in all things, you can see how you can apply this practice practically throughout your life. It is one of the keys to you being able to live a good life in any circumstance.
The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own… — Epictetus
Take ten minutes to sit and think; contemplate the things in your life right now and whether you have control over them or not. You may have some level of influence (and is a whole other topic), but you do not have complete control.
When you understand and accept that what you do have control over is very little, it can be incredibly freeing. Realise that since you have no control over most things or other people you can let go of worrying about them. Train yourself to accept and even embrace this truth. Again, this is another element of reframing your perceptions.
The four cardinal virtues of Stoicism are Courage, Self-discipline, Justice and Wisdom. You’ll notice they are all within your circle of control. You can make the right, but often hard, choices which lead you toward these each day.
If this way of thinking appeals to you, I recommend seeking out and reading books such as The Obstacle is the Way, and The Little Book of Stoicism for an excellent grounding in the principles. Then immerse yourself in the teachings from the classic texts to find and take what works for you.
If you have found the idea in this article useful or helpful, then please share it with your friends and family so they too can see if they would find it beneficial in their own lives.