Avenger Penguin

What we control and what we don’t

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Today’s (9 January) Daily Stoic insight is based on a core tenet of Stoic philosophy: accepting there are many things you cannot control, but you are not powerless because you can control your opinions about things outside of your control.

This is clearly stated by the supporting quotation from Epictetus in Enchiridion Chapter 1:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, Chapter 1

The key insight from today — one that I might have missed when I first read The Daily Stoic — is what it is telling you about what you can control. The focus for today is not the difficult task of trying hard to accept what you cannot control (and therefore try to “let go” of worrying about these things) but instead it is offering the opportunity to focus positively on what you can control about a situation: your opinion about it.

If you despair at the state of the world or politics or some disaster happening in the world. You can choose the opinion of being angry or upset about it or you can choose to acknowledge that while it is bad, it is out of your control.

Or is it?

It could be argued that this approach stops short. It does not acknowledge there are perhaps other thing you can control. Another quotation that came to mind on reading today’s thoughts was:

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

W. L. Watkinson

That is, can we some way to do good in even the darkest of situations or events?

If something is not as you would like it to be, but it seems to be out of your control, maybe there is something you can still do about it. This attitude seems perfectly within the ethos of Stoicism too: do not focus on anger or other emotions about something (i.e. “cursing” the darkness) but instead act on what you can control in line with virtue and doing what is right.

Dismayed by the state of politics? Join a political party, campaign or even just write your thoughts for others to read (making a well-articulated case just the great orators of Ancient Greece and Rome, of course, rather than getting into passionate, fruitless arguments on social media).

Frustrated by your body and health? For many people there’s small habits you can adopt daily to nudge your health in the right direction if only in small ways.

Will a single blog in the noise change policitians’ minds or steer public discourse? No. Will eating better help chronic or terminal illnesses? No.

But in the darkness, it is our Stoic duty to light that candle if only to focus our discipline away from cursing it.