“Our actions may be impeded . . . but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting.
The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” – Marcus Aurelius
We often think of philosophy as this dry, complex, and abstract pursuit that is reserved only for the most intelligent among us. It seems quite useless in our day to day lives.
There’s an exception, of course. Stoicism is remarkably clear and practical. And, truth be told, once you understand its main principles you begin to see them in a lot of other aspects of life, from religion to cognitive behavioral therapy.
One of Stoicism’s main ideas is to let go of what you can’t control. In other words, if you are upset by something you can’t control, then you’re suffering needlessly.
If you’re not a morning person, the sun rising can make you quite angry, but no matter what you think, feel, say, or do, the sun is going to rise and set and keep doing so.
Why does this matter?
You should use your energy and time and effort on what you can control, and give no thought to what’s outside of your 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 survived a concentration camp. He experienced unimaginable horrors, yet he was able to maintain his calm. He chose not to despair, and was an inspiration to his fellow prisoners.
As a matter of fact, he noticed that the ones who managed to survive those atrocities were not the strongest, the fittest, or the most intelligent. The ones who survived were the ones who had a reason to survive.
Next time someone says something to piss you off, think of this quote:
“The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.” - Marcus Aurelius
You can’t control your emotions, but you can control your attitude. And each time that you do, you’re training yourself to be calm, you’re developing a new habit. And our habits make us.
Ignore what is outside of your control
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our actions. The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.” ― Epictetus
Nobody likes a crybaby. This was true two thousand or so years ago, and it is true today. We must train ourselves to exhibit perfect composure. Life kicks you in the teeth? Hah! We even manage a smile.
“Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes.” – Alexandre Dumas
As the cliche goes, pain is inevitable, but suffering optional.
Each problem that comes your way should be thought of as an opportunity to fortify your resolve. Even those cursed with chronic pain can teach themselves to choose their attitude towards their illness.
“The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.” – Seneca
If given the chance (I highly recommend reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius) Stoicism offers a sort of how-to guide on living a good life, no matter our circumstances.
And the best thing this philosophy can teach us is to discipline our minds to let go of what we can’t control.