“People are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things. when, therefore, we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved let us never impute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own views. It is the action of an uninstructed person to reproach others for her own misfortunes; of one entering upon instruction, to reproach herself; and of one perfectly instructed, to reproach neither others or herself.”
I curated the above quote from our good friend Epictetus. There are a couple of sentences in the middle that talk about not fearing death and I cut them out. It isn’t that I don’t think that these lines on death are worthwhile but they are not exactly what I want to address right now. What I want to write about now is dealing with difficult situations from the perspective of the inside-out life.
Today I had a frustrating conversation. I have been trying to discuss some sensitive issues with a friend of mine. We have been dealing with this particular thicket of issues for over a month now. In that time we have both said some stupid and hurtful things. I don’t think either one of us is really happy with how this line of communication is going. Neither one of us wants to cause hurt and stress to the other and yet it continues and escalates.
What do we do in situations like this? Our friend and teacher Epictetus comes through again when he encourages us to follow reason. Sometimes we just have to realize that situations are beyond our control. Sometimes we cannot make ourselves understood, sometimes the other person we are trying to communicate with is seemingly unreachable…no matter how much we care about them. This is something the Stoics refer to as the dichotomy of control: there are some things I can control and somethings I can’t. Modern Stoics generally add a third, making a trichotomy: things we can exert some control over. This is kind of it. So what do we do?
As someone attempting to apply stoicism as a philosophy of life I have two choices as far as I can tell: having recognized the degree to which the situation is beyond my control I can continue to bang my head into the wall of their anger and offense or I can simply drop the issue and move on. I recognize through reason that I have tried my best and my best isn’t good enough. Once I see the situation for what it is I have a choice to make. The choice is mine. This is part of the piece of freedom that is at the heart of stoicism. We always have a choice. Here are a few more words from Epictetus. Take them to heart. Refuse to be a slave.
“Of things some are in our power, and others are not. In our power are opinion, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion (turning from a thing); and in a word, whatever are our own acts; not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power), and in a word, whatever are not our own acts. And the things in our power are by nature free, not subject to restraint or hinderance: but the things not in our power are weak, slavish, subject to restraint, in the power of others.”