Philosophy has a tendency to be dry, complex, and abstract. For a heterosexual male who has little experience of philosophy, reading Nietzsche is tantamount to being faced with Helen of Troy sporting a penis. An unbounded amount of confusion ensues.
Thankfully, there’s an exception. When you consider the company that it keeps, Stoicism is remarkably clear and practical. Its most famous proponents use straightforward language, and simple logic. Many of its core tenets seem desperately needed in today’s society, whose people appear riddled with anxiety and doubt.
One of Stoicism’s main ideas is to let go of what you can’t control. In other words, if something that is outside of your control upsets you, then you’re suffering needlessly. It’s like wailing in self-pity every time the sun rises; howl all you want, it’s still going to rise. This knowledge is so common as to be a cliche, and it’s the very reason that we need to examine the idea more closely, in order to realise its power.
To be more precise, the idea can be broken into three distinct categories:
- What’s entirely in your control
- What’s partially in your control (the Stoics call these indifferents)
- What’s outside of your control.
The vast majority of your efforts should be based on what’s entirely in your personal control, some of your effort might be put into what’s partially in your control (i.e. what you can influence), and no thought at all should be given to what’s outside of your control.
What does this look like in the real world?
Entirely in your personal control
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl is a psychologist and concentration camp survivor. What he experienced is more horrific than anything we can imagine, and yet he was able to maintain a calm and heroic attitude. He chose not to despair, and was an inspiration to his fellow prisoners.
In a more familiar world, if a colleague says something to intentionally piss you off, what could be worse than reacting negatively? They’ve got the result that they wanted, and you’ve become a little unhappier.
“The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.”Marcus Aurelius
You certainly can’t control your emotions, but you can control your attitude. And each time that you do, you’re training yourself to be a calmer, happier person. Our habits are what make us.
The values that you choose to live by are just as important. This earth that we’re lucky enough to live on didn’t come with pre-written values. It’s up to each and every one of us to look into our souls and discover which values are important to us, and then to live them as best we can. Existing in this state is the most honest and fulfilling way to be.
Partially in your control
This category might be thought of as “nice to have.” If you can get whatever is in here, good for you. But if you don’t, it has slipped into the “outside of your personal control” category, and so should fail to perturb you. It’s packed with what most people strive for in their lives—being attractive, wealthy, successful, and smart; a person who people gravitate to during parties because they’re so funny and captivating. A person who other people want to be.
To the Stoics, these are welcome, but ultimately inconsequential. If you lose them, you can choose whether to bitch about it, or handle it with cool-headed equanimity. Gas leak blew your French chateau to smithereens? No big deal—it’s already happened and there’s nothing you can do about it now. Wife ran away with a Brad Pitt-looking motherfucker? Screw it, it’s her decision, and her loss. Happen to be a Jew living in Warsaw in the 1940’s? Your luck is awful, but you can still choose your attitude.
Outside of your control
Nothing in this category is worth getting emotional about. Instead of whinging, it’s best to just shut up and accept what’s happening. This includes any negative emotion—being sad, frustrated, or confused. Our first instinct is to escape, and by doing so we often intensify the feelings.
“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”Seneca
We must train ourselves as masters of composure; unflappable black belts. Adversity? Hah! We laugh in its ludicrous face.
This training can only occur by encountering problems, and being mindful of yourself. Each problem that comes your way should be considered a blessing; an opportunity to fortify an iron will. Even sufferers of chronic pain can teach themselves to choose their attitude towards their illness. They’re mindful of the pain and experience it fully, but they realise that it’s wholly outside of their personal control, and that puffing themselves up about it only serves to make it more potent.
“What did he trust in? Not in reputation, or riches, or office, but in his own strength, that is to say, in his judgments about what things are in our power and what are not. For these judgments alone are what make us free, make us immune from hindrance, raise the head of the humiliated, and make them look into the faces of the rich with unaverted eyes, and into the faces of tyrants. And this is what the philosopher could give; but you will not be departing with confidence, will you, but trembling about such trifles as clothes and silver plate? Wretch! Is that how you have wasted your time up until now?”Epictetus
During a time when surviving were unquestionably harder, the Stoics knew how to live a good life. We’re fortunate to have access to their wisdom. So the next time you’re bristling with rage due to some external event, act as a Stoic would, and let go of what you can’t control.