“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible”.
This quote from the Stoic sage Epictetus (under a new interpretation by Sharon Lebell, in ‘The art of living’) argues that much of the suffering that we experience is self-created, a result of contravening this fundamental moral law, by trying to control things that are beyond our control. If we reflect on our lives we can see the truth of this assertion – so much of the stress and difficulty we experience is not directly the result of events that fortune has handed us, but through our efforts to control: things from the past, the future, other people, our external circumstances, the weather, the world.
In reality, Epictetus recognises, there are very few things that we can exert full control over. Put simply, they can be reduced to one thing: our beliefs. The only aspect of our experience we really control are the thoughts, opinions, judgements, and attitudes we adopt towards the events and things that happen to us. All other things are beyond our control. However, despite this limited range of power, these things are in fact the most potent factors in determining the quality and happiness of our lives.
As regards externals – events and people beyond our control – Epictetus offers advice that has become the philosophical basis of modern cognitive-behavioural therapy:
“Things themselves don’t hurt or hinder us. Nor do other people. How we view these things is another matter. It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble…We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them”.
This attitude encourages us not to see the source of our problems ‘out there’ but rather in our minds, more specifically in the judgments, evaluations, and opinions which we form around what happens to us. Epictetus and the stoics urge us to shift our attention away from trying to fix our problems by controlling the external world and instead seek to control and master our inner world of thoughts, desires, and attitudes.
Two people may interpret the same event in a totally different way (even one person may interpret it differently at different times) which demonstrates that events themselves don’t hurt us but our thoughts about these events (Shakespeare: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”). Therefore, if we can focus on altering our own perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes rather than trying to resist what is happening, or has already happened, we can find happiness and peace:
“Don’t demand or expect that events happen as you wish them to. Accept events as they actually happen. That way peace is possible”.
The aim of controlling our thoughts and desires is to bring them into harmony with the way things are. When we accept things as they are, or even actively wish or choose for them to be that way, we relinquish our resistance to life and find peace and harmony.