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.
Can a philosophy from the first century teach us anything now?
I mean, the world has moved on in ways that ancient philosophers could never have dreamed of.
And yet, have we moved on at all? How many of us still believe that we have control over our circumstances?
And you’ve heard the saying that we make plans, and God laughs.
I know that when I feel the urge to control anything, whether that’s my day or my environment, it’s because I feel out of control. This might be because I think I have too much to do or more month than money,
I can cut down on my commitments and pull my finger out to make more money and imagine I’m controlling my life, but am I?
Epictetus encouraged us to recognise that there are things that we have no control over and things we do.
I can tell you what I’m doing tomorrow. At least what I think I’m doing tomorrow, but who knows? There are a zillion things that can derail my plans.
I do, as Epictetus said, have some control over my desire to cut down my workload and still make money, but I can’t control the outcome.
What can’t we control?Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our actions.
According to Epictetus, we don’t control the weather; we don’t control other people, and we don’t control our bodies.
I certainly can’t control the weather; it doesn’t matter how much I pray it won’t rain when I have a bbq; it’s out of my control. I can only control how much the rain upsets me.
Maybe you try to control other people’s behaviour?
Do you like meals at a particular time or want everyone to hang their coat up as soon as they take it off? These things may not seem like control to you but take another look.
Control might take the form of monitoring what’s on television or what someone eats. Yes, you might justify this control by telling yourself and them that you’re doing this for their good, and I believe you mean well.
But can you see that this is still a form of control?
Maybe you feel you need to control yourself or others to keep everyone safe, and you’re living on a knife edge because, short of maintaining everyone you care about locked in a room, the possibilities that something can happen are varied and limitless.
Some people try so hard to control events and people around them; they fear that everything will go to hell in a handcart if they lose control.
If this is you, it’s time to be kind to yourself. This type of control is fear-based, so notice when you have this feeling and remind yourself that you have nothing to fear at this second.
Unless you trip over the coat that wasn’t hung up.
So I can’t control other people or what they think about me.
But I can control what I think they think of me.
And it’s true we can exercise and eat healthily, but we can still get sick, and eventually, we will all die. But I can control my part in looking after this body while I have it.
So what else don’t we control?
How about time?
Do you ever get stressed about how much you have to do in the time you have? Do you need to tick everything on your ‘to-do’ list off? The ‘to-do’ list that you created.
But while you can’t control time, you can notice how you react to time. If you feel stressed, as if you’re running out of time, take a breath and return to this moment.
And remember, there is no need to control this second. You can relax in the present moment.
How about your beliefs?
Epictetus claimed that we control our beliefs. By this, he meant that if you remember that your beliefs and thoughts are under your control and anything external to you isn’t, you’ve found the key to emotional resilience.
You might believe you’re shy or introverted or have an addictive personality. But that’s just what you think about yourself or what someone else had said about you at one time, probably when you were small, and this has become your belief.
And the only way to control a belief is to see that a belief is a thought. It’s a story we tell ourselves or have been told that we believe is true.
So hold your belief to the light and ask yourself if it’s true.
Do you try to control your thoughts?
Maybe you believe that if you could think only ‘positive’ thoughts, your life would be easier, and then when you realise that you have a negative thought, you’re upset with yourself.
But how can you control your thoughts?
You can’t control the thought that created your feeling because that thought disappeared seconds or minutes ago. And you can’t control what you’re going to think next.
If you don’t believe me, tell me your next thought.
No, not that one. Or that one but the next one. No, of course, you can’t because you don’t know what your next thought will be, so if you can’t control the thought you had or the thought you’re going to have, what are you trying to control?
You can control the best bits of life
Epictetus told us that happiness, joy, frustration, anger, or any other emotion is in our control, and circumstances are the stage on which we play out these emotions.
As a slave, Epictetus had little control over any area of his life, but he developed a philosophy of inner freedom and resilience that’s as valid now as it was then.
Accepting that we have no control over anything external to us, including our circumstances, means that we can let go of the fight and enjoy the randomness and unpredictability of what comes up for us.
We may not be able to control the weather, other people or our bodies, but we can control how we think about these and every other aspect of our lives.
I’ll take that.