There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. – Epictetus, Enchiridion
When we think about Nature we tend to immediately recognize that some things are simply outside of our control. The weather can turn, an earthquake can strike and a volcano could erupt and we would never be upset at ourselves for failing to prevent a storm from occurring. I mean, Nature is just being Nature after all.
How strange, that we are not nearly as kind with chance in our daily lives. I think that’s a shame. There are many things in our lives that we cannot control and it would do us well to remember to treat ourselves and others kindly when we experience them.
Traffic, power blackouts and internet outages are just a few examples of modern inconveniences which remain outside of our control, and still we often allow these things to disrupt our peace of mind.
What good does it do to stress and complain about the things you cannot change? Just as you cannot change the traffic, you also cannot change the opinions of others. So, why bother being upset about these things?
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the best plans possible in our lives, but it does mean we shouldn’t be upset when things don’t go according to that plan. Nature is unpredictable after all, and therefore our lives are clearly subject to change without notice.
So, be kind and patient. Make it your goal to endure wisely the situations you cannot change. Don’t become another misanthrope or an angry voice. Nobody needs another annoyance added to their lives. Take care that you never become one.
How many things are superfluous we fail to realize until they begin to be wanting; we merely used them not because we needed them but because we had them. And how much do we acquire simply because our neighbours have acquired such things, or because most men possess them!Seneca
I think we fail to realize how many of our possessions are really pretty extraneous. Our parents and grandparents enjoyed their youth and middle years without many of the conveniences we enjoy today—cellphones, the internet, on demand streaming services, endless varieties of food, Amazon, Google, and now everything is available for delivery straight to your home—the list goes on for quite some time. The point is if we were born in a different era all of these things obviously wouldn’t have mattered. None of them were necessary for our parents to enjoy life and find their place in the world. So, why do you allow them to matter to you?
Have you ever noticed how at one moment we can be enjoying our latest purchase and telling our friends all about some new feature and two minutes later we can suddenly be overwhelmed when we discover something doesn’t go as we planned. Maybe our credit card won’t scan correctly at the checkout line or perhaps we find a ding in our new car’s door. The truth is that many of the things we let exasperate us don’t really matter on their own when we separate what happened from how it impacted our plans.
We’ve given these objects the power to upset us because we lost track of what’s really valuable. We stopped looking for value in ourselves and now we’re left with an unsatisfiable desire for something “more” that can’t be fulfilled by the material world. So, we ignore our feelings and go on buying “more stuff” and being disappointed when everything doesn’t turn out the way we wanted.
The truth is that there is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying the conveniences and luxuries of the modern world. I mean we all understand that an object can’t be good or bad. An object is just an object after all. It’s a collection of molecules arranged by nature and tempered by men to serve a purpose—nothing more. So we have to look at how we value and use those objects that determines if our decisions add value or inhibit our personal growth and development.
Is our sense of purpose and fulfillment really something we can measure and buy? Why do you work all day—every week—for decades? Is it to afford the latest fashions and gadgets or are you searching for your place in this world? We all have bills to pay, but are we working just to pay those bills or do we use our careers and salaries to help us fulfill a deeper human purpose? I think that’s the unspoken struggle we face. Objects and possessions are tools. How are you using yours? Are you using your resources to improve your mind or to distract it?
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A Field Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living by Massimo Pigliucci
You don’t go around being careless about nails getting into your shoes, and you walk in such a way as not to sprain your ankle. So why are you so careless about your ruling faculty [your mind or thoughts]? Why do you let it be offended and polluted by all sorts of garbage, instead of guarding it against assaults from without, and taking care from within to sharpen it as much as possible?Massimo Piggliucci, A Field Guide to a Happy Life, Lesson 38
I’ve read several versions of Epictetus’ classic Handbook, and this is the first time I’ve been able to say I thoroughly enjoyed it. Coincidentally, I was actually writing my own interpretation of this text to use in my personal meditations when I came across this new edition. Maybe I’m just too lazy, but I found Piggliucci’s version met all of my needs and I ended up setting aside my little project. But I digress, the point is that before I found this version, I was stumbling over archaic translations or struggling with cultural bias from millennia ago. This book was the solution to those problems.
For the first time I found myself reading not just a new translation but an exciting interpretation of the Enchiridion. For those readers familiar with virtue ethics, you aren’t going to find anything truly new here. The lessons are timeliness. The principles unchanging, however, it’s still an excellent reminder of how perception frames everything in this life.
At the end of the day, I think this one is a keeper. After a long day of work when I find myself a little overwhelmed with my day, a quick glance at a couple of pages reminds to focus on what I can control. I let go of pretty much everything weighing on my shoulders. After all, most of our pain and frustration are the result of wanting something that’s beyond our control. Once we understand that trap, we can avoid the headaches and disappointment we experience when things don’t go our way.
If you’re looking for an introduction to Stoicism or maybe just some Reason and Common Sense, here’s an excellent choice whether you’re gifting it to friends or adding it to your own collection. It’s light, fun and practical. So pick this one up at your local bookstore and tell me what you think.