Finding Peace by Focusing on the Things in Your Control

It’s Monday morning.  You raced around all weekend, doing errands, buying groceries, shuttling kids to their playdates and practices.  You fit in some time with your spouse or friends on the evenings.  Sunday evening was the predictable mad scramble of planning, packing, and preparing for another busy week, with the clouds of anxiety gathering in your mind as you think about how busy, frenetic, and stressful the coming work and school week will be.  How do you feel on your Monday morning?  Are you behind schedule, anxious, impatient and weighed down by the worry of getting everything right?  Is there any way to shift this mindset to one focused on opportunity and to shed some of the stress?

Nearly two thousand years ago, Epictetus wrestled with this question.  Epictetus (c. AD 55-135), a Stoic philosopher living in the Roman Empire, believed that our capacity to be happy lies entirely in ourselves.  He taught through a series of discourses, many of which have been preserved.  A shorter version of the principal themes of his discourses was recorded in the Encheiridon, or Manual.  According to Epictetus and the Stoics, events are neither good nor bad, but our reactions to those events may be good or bad.  Our experience is, therefore, dictated by the sum of our reactions to the events of our life.

Epictetus begins his work the Encheiridion by distinguishing the things in our control with the things out of our control:

“Of things some are in our power, and others are not.  In our power are opinion, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion (turning from a thing); and in a word, whatever are our own acts: not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power), and in a word, whatever are not our own acts.”

We have control over our opinion, movement, desire and aversion — “our own acts.”  We lack control over our bodies, our belongings, and our success.  Recognition of this distinction is important, because it is only by differentiating the things we control from the things we do not control that we can find freedom.  According to Epictetus, “the things in our power are by nature free,” but “the things not in our power are weak,” and “in the power of others.”

Suffering lies in our confusion about what we control:

“Remember then that if you think the things which are by nature slavish to be free, and the things which are in the power of others to be your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed….”

On the other hand, keeping a clear mind about the things that lie in our control is the pathway to mental freedom:

“If you think that only which is your own to be your own, and if you think that what is another’s, as it really is, belongs to another, no man will ever compel you, no man will hinder you, you will never blame any man, you will accuse no man, you will do nothing involuntarily (against your will), no man will harm you, you will have no enemy, for you will not suffer any harm.”

Epictetus’s “live and let live” message of focusing only on the things you can control is easy enough to remember and practice when things are going well.  But how do we implement this type of mental discipline in tough times?  Epictetus recommends the practice of reflection in difficult circumstances as a means to develop peace and find opportunity.

First, Epictetus suggests that we examine obstacles closely to understand exactly what limitation they present:

“Disease is an impediment to the body, but not to the will, unless the will itself chooses.  Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will.  And add this reflection on the occasion of everything that happens; for you will find it an impediment to something else, but not to yourself.”

We all face obstacles in life.  Often times, however, the obstacle is not the barrier we may initially perceive.  Most importantly, Epictetus reminds us that there can be no obstacle to our own willpower that arises externally.  This is squarely in our own power.  Reviving our willpower in the face of difficulty can be a matter of examining challenge for opportunity:

On the occasion of every accident (event) that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use.

The suggestion here, is not that difficult times are easy.  We all face challenges that frustrate us, anger us, and hurt us.  The lessons in those moments, Epictetus suggests, is that pain can teach endurance, not getting what we want can teach patience, dealing with abusive people in our lives can teach understanding.

Finding this pathway to understanding requires us to remember Epictetus’s first point: focus on the things in your control.  We cannot control our external successes or failures, or how others view or treat us.  By remembering this, and developing a practice of reflection, we can find equanimity and peace in our relation to the world.  Epictetus writes that the “condition and characteristic of an uninstructed person” is that “he never expects from himself advantage nor harm, but from externals.”  In contrast, an instructed person “expects all advantage and all harm from himself.”  Ultimately, this is our choice to make:

“You must be one man, either good or bad.  You must either cultivate your own ruling faculty, or external things; you must either exercise your skill on internal things or on external things; that is, you must either maintain the position of a philosopher or that of a common man.”

Epictetus’s belief is that if we practice this, a better view of life awaits:

Seek not the that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but with the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.

Go tackle your Monday morning.  If it isn’t perfect – and whose ever is? – draw a bit of strength from Epictetus by remembering that while you can’t control the day, you can find peace in your reaction to it.