Stoicism: Concentrate On What You Can Control

In the course of our life, we face many obstacles. Financial hardships, relationship problems, disruptions in our plans, moments of weakness, environmental barriers, cultural barriers and many more.

To Epictetus, almost all of these disruptions fall into the realm of things that are out of our control. Except for moments of weakness, we have influence over such a thing because Epictetus believed that we have the power to control our positive and negative impulses. The power to make good use of impressions. Impressions being things that have an effect on the mind.

The ability to reason allows us to controls these impressions. With reason comes judgment about what is good for us and what is bad for us. Reason allows us to plan a course of action that is the most beneficial for us. Reason can also halt any negative temptations, for we always know what the right thing to do is, while the right action is what can be troublesome and can cause moments of weakness because the right action can be difficult. However, reason can show us that it is the correct path.

Reason is twofold: It can analyze other objects but it can also analyze itself and see whether or not we are applying the correct reason or if decisions and actions based on reason are correct. Because reason can correct itself, it is considered to be one of Man’s greatest gifts. For Epictetus, the ability to reason is superior to other abilities like writing or music for example, because words cannot tell you if it is a good thing to write them or music cannot tell you when is the proper time to play an instrument. Reason, on the other hand, can analyze itself and tell you what the proper use of itself is.

Rather than worrying about things we have no influence on, we must dedicate our thinking to what we can control, such as our ability to reason. Another thing under our control is our attitude.

Attitude towards the hardship one faces in life can be the difference between moving forward or allowing the hardship to break you. Death and your dying are not under your control but your attitude towards it is. We can face our mortality by either being weighed down by the inevitable or by making use of the limited time they have. It’s an attitude towards life and time that needs to be practiced.

Epictetus referred to this practice as the practice of what is necessary. What is necessary is the use of reason, control of one’s emotions and molding an attitude towards life. Practice is the key term here. By using such a word, Epictetus puts forth the notion that we need to develop, hone and enhance the things under our control. That you are not innately born with the ability to make use of what is in your control. We have to use life and the obstacles it presents as opportunities to improve upon our reason, attitude, and control.

An example of someone we can emulate is Agrippinus. He was well aware of the lack of control he had over his life and was not bothered by things which were out of his control. So much so, that he would often say that he did not add to his own troubles. Which is the right attitude. Life will add many troubles, it doesn’t need your assistance.

And so, one should learn from Agrippinus and try to emulate his reason and behavior for he had this to say of his exile and eventual death:

I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived — and dying I will tend to later.

Writing/Life Advice: Don’t Get Overwhelmed

This is a reminder to myself as much as it is to others. I’m currently working on my first novel and by currently I mean it’s been several years where I’ve gone back and forth between different stories, characters, scenarios trying to find the perfect one as if something like that exists. Often times I’ve found myself planning more than writing. It’s a form of procrastination or pleasure-seeking where you feel accomplished because you planned something that you’ll soon do. Like a false start at a 100m sprint, I find myself restarting over and over again and I believe the main reason for this is that I focus on the big picture too much. I’m constantly thinking about 20, 50, 100, 200 pages from now when I should be focused on this blank piece of paper in front of me. This habit of wanting to get to the end can be overwhelming because it takes you out of the present. It gives you unnecessary doubt or stress because the present may not be going well. So, that doubt can take over and cause you to abandon the project altogether, as I have in the past.

Here is where Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird comes in. In her memoir, she recites a piece of advice she came across in her journey to become a better writer. This advice hit home for me and perhaps it will for you as well.

E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.

Lamott likens this to her idea of the “one-inch picture frame” which is the idea of just focusing on this one sentence, get that right, get this one paragraph right, this “one small scene, one memory, one exchange” correct.

Often times our anxiety kicks in when we focus too much on the future. The reason for this is because everyone’s future is uncertain to some extent. Self-doubt creeps in with uncertainty and this becomes a recipe for a false start.

So, in order to avoid this, we just have to remember the one-inch picture frame or take comfort in the light your headlights are casting and enjoy the ride.

 

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