Pamela never worried about the things under her control, the things she had a choice to pursue or not to pursue: She dropped out of college, married someone she met in a bar a few weeks earlier, and changed jobs every other month. She always worried about the things that weren’t in her control: about things that happened in the past, about growing older, about the behaviour of her parents, her husband, her children, and her boss.
She pointed the finger at them for whatever was wrong in her life, and wasted her energies trying to change them, all to no avail. Now in her late 60s, three times divorced, Pamela lives alone, running from one therapist to another trying to find sanity in her mind and peace in her soul.
Tiffany, on the other hand, has always focused on the things under her control: She carefully planned her education, chose her husband, her friends, and business associates. She never troubled herself with things that happened in the past, never pointed the finger at others for whatever went wrong in her life, and never wasted energy attempting to change them. Now in her early 60s, Tiffany lives with her husband, has two grown children that treasure her, and she has never required the services of a therapist to workout her problems.
Pamela’s and Tiffany’s stories highlight the second rule of spiritual living by reason:
Worry only about the things under your control, the things that can be influenced and changed by your actions, not about the things that are beyond your capacity to direct and alter.
This rule summarizes several important features of ancient Stoic wisdom — features that remain powerfully suggestive for modern times, and most notably the belief in an ultimately rational order operating in the universe reflecting a benign providence that ensures proper outcomes in life. Thinkers such as Epictetus did not simply prescribe “faith” as an abstract philosophical principle; they offered a concrete strategy based on intellectual and spiritual discipline. The key to resisting the hardship and discord that intrude upon every human life, is to cultivate a certain attitude toward adversity based on the critical distinction between those things we are able to control versus those which are beyond our capacity to manage. The misguided investor may not be able to recover his fortune but he can resist the tendency to engage in self-torment. The victims of a natural disaster, a major illness or an accident may not be able to recover and live their lives the way they used to, but they too can save themselves the self-torment. In other words, while we cannot control all of the outcomes we seek in life, we certainly can control our responses to these outcomes. Herein lies our potential for a life that is both happy and fulfilled.
Unfortunately no one is endowed with an unlimited supply of energy. Worrying about the things that are not in our control is wasteful and destructive. It consumes our energies, and tends to prolong and exacerbate misfortune. Understanding this simple premise of life and having the wisdom, the will, and the discipline to focus on the things we can control, while steering away from the things we cannot control is the basis for allocating our energies efficiently and effectively, and living in harmony and peace with ourselves and with our environment.
*This is an extract from a book I did co-author with M.A. Soupios, The Ten Golden Rules: Ancient Wisdom from the Greek philosophers on living the good life
Also read, the First Golden Rule on Living the Good Life