In this article I talk about how you can deal with difficult times by understanding Stoicism’s main tenet, that some things are in your control, and other things are not. Also, I relate a very personal story of a challenging time in the hope that it might help you when you face times of trouble.
“There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.
Now the things within our power are by nature free, unrestricted, unhindered; but those beyond our power are weak, dependent, restricted, alien. Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault with both gods and men.”
With these words, begins one of the most influential works of Western philosophy ever written, the Enchiridion, or the Handbook, which captures the words of Epictetus, a one-time slave and Greek Stoic philosopher. There is deep, abiding wisdom in these words. Some things are within your power, and some things are not … simple, yet profound. Easy to understand, but sometimes hard to put into practice. Yet, even if you never achieve perfection in applying these words to your thoughts and desires, it is certainly worthwhile to consider them carefully.
In a previous article I described how boosting your sense of personal control can improve your mental and physical well-being, and your flourishing. One key element of personal control is understanding what's under your control and what is not. This understanding can prevent you from wasting energy on trying to control what you cannot.
A Personal Experience
I can tell you from personal experience that understanding what you can and cannot control can be extremely useful when facing challenging times. My first wife, Debbie, was having some hip problems. The initial diagnosis was a pulled muscle, but when the treatments didn’t work, she was sent for further tests. Fast forward a few months, and she was diagnosed with cancer. Unfortunately, it was stage 4 at diagnosis. Stage 4 is as bad as it gets. To make matters worse, she had a very rare form of cancer. In fact, despite going to the best specialists in the country, there was never a definitive diagnosis regarding exactly what she had. The bottom line is that Debbie’s cancer was terminal, and I knew it. You probably can’t imagine the shock … from a healthy 43 year old to terminal cancer in a matter of weeks.
Despite the shock, I knew I had a responsibility to do what I could for Debbie. Cancer was going to kill her, and there was nothing I could do about that. But there were things I could do. If there was a specialist that might help, we went to them. When she had trouble walking, we got her a cane. When that wasn’t enough, we got a walker. Right up until the last days of Debbie’s life, I did my best to focus on what was immediately in front of us, do what I could, and not worry about the rest. It may be hard to believe, but I really didn’t worry too much about the vast array of things that were beyond my control. I’m not going to lie and say it was easy; it certainly wasn’t. But, I worked very hard to not waste time and energy lamenting our fate. I put that time and energy to work making what remained of Debbie’s life as good as it could be. This reduced my stress immensely, although it certainly didn’t eliminate it, I absolutely had my bad days. But, my focus helped me cope with a horrible situation. This deceptively simple approach, doing what I could and letting the rest go, was very Stoic, although this all happened well before I knew anything of Stoicism. The core of my coping was understanding what I could, and could not control.
This idea, knowing what you can and cannot control, is central to Stoicism, and as I illustrated in my story, it’s an effective way of dealing with times of trouble. When you face challenges, it’s pointless to yell at the wind, suffering stress, anxiety, and frustration over things you can’t control. Instead, try to use your human ability to reason to deal more effectively with your challenges.
Let’s look a little more closely at how you can avoid unnecessary unhappiness by understanding what is, and is not, under your control. The Stoics believe that unhappiness (and other negative emotions) are the result of ignorance, specifically of how to use reason to deal with negative emotions. In other words, we’re unhappy because we don’t know how to deal with unhappiness. Humans possess the ability to reason, in fact, that's part of the nature of humans, to use reason to make sense of and deal with the world. So, using reason equals living according to the nature of being human. Some believe that the only path to true, enduring happiness is to live according to nature (the nature of being human). Put these together, we see a double benefit from using reason, it helps us deal with upsetting situations, and also helps move us closer to true happiness.
So the first step to dealing with troubling times is to accept that some things are out of your control. Reason tells us that there’s little sense in getting upset over something that you can’t control. After all, you can't do anything about it. Once your reason kicks in, you should try to identify what IS under your control (even if only partially under your control). This is where you put your energy and focus, in controlling what you can. We can make this approach more powerful by following modern Stoic philosopher William Irvine’s approach and dividing things into three categories: things over which we have no control, things over which we have full control, and things over which we have some control. This is really a continuum with degrees rather than strict categories, but we’ll treat them as categories for simplicity.
Things over which you have no control include the weather, the actions of others, whether your favorite team wins or loses (this one is a struggle for sports fans), and getting older (this one is a struggle for me!), whether someone else loves you, and many, many other things. One big thing you can’t control is the past. As Omar Khayyam wrote, “The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.” That’s a pretty eloquent way to say that you can’t change the past. Never forget that what has happened, has happened, you cannot change it. You can only move forward. “You can’t control the cards you’re dealt, you can only control how you play them.”
Knowing What You Can Control
Fortunately, there are things you can control. Your personal goals are under your control, but you have to be careful here, base your goals on things that you can control; set internal goals, not external goals. For example, I can control the quality of this podcast, but I can’t really control how many people listen. You can also control your opinions of things. This isn’t always easy, but remember the words of Seneca, “It is according to opinion that we suffer.” You can also control the values you seek. You decide who you want to be as a person, not your parents, not your boss, not your significant other, not the social media mob, not your past, you get to decide. You also control the purpose you seek in your life. How you pursue this purpose in the moment may not be fully under your control, but your purpose is.
Lots of things fall into the middle ground - things over which you have some control - your career, your health, your reputation, your finances, you don’t have total control over any of these. But, you do have some control, and for important things, you should exercise the control that you do have.
In addition to effectively dealing with negative emotions, understanding what you can and cannot control, is also very empowering. Once you let go of what you cannot control, and identify where you can have an impact, you have a clear path of action. Much of your frustration, anxiety, and angst comes from feeling that you’re powerless, that you can’t have an impact on things. By focusing on what you can control, you shift attention away from what you cannot control, which simultaneously decreases feelings of helplessness and increases feelings of power. This is critically important, you decrease something that brings unhappiness (helplessness), and increase something that brings positive feelings (empowerment). Reduce the negative, increase the positive – that sounds like a good combination to me.
Understanding these principles isn’t particularly difficult, but consistently applying them takes effort. Aristotle’s notion of practice is useful here. First, you have to understand the principles, then you have to consciously apply them. Through continuous practice, applying reason to challenging times becomes habit. Then, eventually, using reason to deal with troubles becomes part of who you are. You’ll simply BE a person who knows how to deal with the trials and tribulations of the world, and you’ll be happier. It’s a long road, but what better destination than happiness?
Alright, let’s move on to three things you can do this week to help you better use your reason to deal with difficulties.
Three Things to Help You Deal With Difficulties
The first thing is to apply what I call the “never worry” logic to a difficult situation you face. Here’s the logic. When something is causing you to be unhappy, worried, or anxious, ask yourself whether there’s anything you can do to affect the situation that’s causing you to be upset. If there is, focus your energies on doing what you can to control things, don’t waste time and energy on worry. If there’s nothing you can do, then there’s no point in worrying or being upset, it won’t change a thing. So, instead focus your efforts on changing how you view the situation. Suppose you get laid off, which can cause great stress and anxiety, understandably. Instead of lamenting your fate, which you can't control (after all, you've already been laid off), put your energy into taking steps that will increase your chances of getting another job (maybe even a lot better job).
A second thing to try is to turn the tables on regret. Instead of letting feelings of regret torment you, use the regret you might experience to learn and improve. Whatever actions (or maybe inactions) led to your regret, are in the past. You cannot control the past. What you can control is how you will act when facing a similar situation or decision in the future. So, think of something in your past over which you feel regret. This doesn’t have to be a big thing. For example, I regret letting myself get out of shape during college. Think about what you've learned from the regret-inducing experience. I learned that it’s easy to slip into bad habits that can harm my health. Then remember that and when you face similar situations use your reason to pull up that learning and apply the learning to the new situation so you won't experience future regret.
Finally, recast an external goal to an internal goal. For example, maybe you have a goal to enhance your career. This isn’t entirely within your control, but you can control some things that may increase your chances for career growth, for example, you can gain a new skill. So, make your goal to take a class that may help you gain the new skill. Be careful here, your goal should be to put the effort in; whether you actually become skilled may be beyond your control. (Don’t ask me how I know.) Here’s another example, one that I borrow from Dr. Irvine’s book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (as always, there’s a link in the show notes). I want my wife Tracy to love me, but my goal should not be to have her love me, that’s not completely under my control. My goal should be to do my best to act in a lovable manner. That IS under my control. (She does love me, by the way, and I her.)
Before closing, I want to state that what I’ve talked about here is the ideal. No mortal, even the most practiced Stoic, has ever achieved perfect tranquility. So, you will feel unhappiness, worry, anxiety, and other negative emotions. Such feelings are inevitable. But you can work towards using reason to feel bad less often. So, don’t be hard on yourself if you slip from time to time. As the saying goes, “It’s a process.”
I’ll end with another, shorter quote from Epictetus, "Things themselves don’t hurt or hinder us. Nor do other people. How we view these things is another matter. It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble."
Until next time, be well my friends.
The Live Well and Flourish podcast covers this and other topics that can help you live a flourishing life. Episodes are available at https://www.livewellandflourish.com/ and on all major podcast apps.
If you liked this article, you might want to listen to episode 34, ”In Times Of Trouble”
For a deep dive on what it means to flourish, check out episode 8. “Human Flourishing – Living the Excellent Life.”