Friday, July 07, 2006

What we control

Epictetus begins his work The Enchiridion by telling us:
“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 own 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.” (The Enchiridion by Epictetus)

At times before I have felt a deep sense of isolation; that no matter how much I accomplish it still wouldn’t be enough. Other times, I have ceased caring at all about my goals and have just wanted to enjoy some of life as it passes by. Both of these views resulted from a misunderstanding that I held.

Epictetus goes on to advise us: “Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, "You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be." And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.” (The Enchiridion by Epictetus)

What I now see is that it is good that there are some things I control and some things I don’t control. The pressure of controlling everything would be too much for any of us to bear. We need the reassurance that the universe will go on, even if we fail in our goals in life. But at the same time, the way to truly enjoy life isn’t to let it pass by. As Epictetus tells us, “those (things) not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others.” In other words, submitting to them would never bring us a true sense of purpose or a real inner happiness. Rather, as Epictetus advises, we should set goals and work to accomplish them, applying ourselves fully to what circumstance has given us control over.