Stoic Musings: Control What You Can. Ignore The Rest.
Ever get the feeling life is spiraling totally out of control, and not only is there nothing you can do about it, but it’s completely disrupting your peace of mind? Or maybe you read that one comment on the internet that just got your blood boiling? (I’ve done that a few times in the last month. We’ve all been there.))
Well, fret no more, the Stoics have an answer for you! It’s quite simple, and for just $19.99 a month… 😉
In all seriousness, though, it is simple, and completely free. And really, REALLY hard sometimes. This answer comes in two parts.
1. Control what you can.
2. Ignore the rest.
Stop staring. I see your mind balking. What about world hunger? What about the rights of oppressed groups or marginalized people or this cause or that cause or etc?
I get it! I do. Each of us has values. However, in Stoic thought there is literally only one thing we have any control over at all. Perhaps it would help to know that another way to say this is: Worrying never fixed anything.
Our Own Actions
Try telling that to good old Rumple, though, right? We’ve all got a Dark One inside that would LOVE to remake the world and put it under our control, if only to stop those things that we consider wrong, bad, or just inconvenient. (Admit it, you do it to. You know, that one person that keeps popping up on your news-feed with THOSE posts? Hint: That’s what Unfollow or Hide buttons are for. Moving on.)
At the end of the day, all we control is how we act. Why? Well, quite simply, because we DON’T control anything else. At all.
We’d like to think we do. We’d love to believe we can control our kids’ behavior or other peoples’ reactions to our behavior, or even our own health. Come to think of it, in the United States, we’re rather obsessed with control of the external, but we’ll cover that a bit further down. The key to Control What You Can is to remember that you control Your Own Actions. Master that part, and then we move on to Part 2.
IGNORE the Rest
So, wait, Raidon, you’re saying we should just embrace apathy and never bother with anything?
Not at all. However this is only one of five core concepts from the Stoics. There’s another entirely devoted to acceptance without passivity. They work together. Essentially this is an admonition to not allow those events, circumstances, and people over which you have no control to disturb the peace of your life.
This is the hard part of the admonition. After all, I’m not a cat. I’d love to be capable of looking at someone who’s probably annoying me, and walking away genuinely unperturbed in the long run, but I’m human. My response is usually much closer to, “Stop bugging me, and fix your neurosis before I can be part of your life!” Talk about a mini-abandonment complex. (ADHD moment: Surprising what one can learn from their own characters, but that’s neither here nor there at the moment.)
Anyway, my usual response is based in the belief that another’s actions are capable of long-term, detrimental effects on me – my well-being, my emotional stability – and while this may have been true when I was a young child, it need not be true in my adult years. This is not to say I will never have an emotional reaction to something someone says or does, but I need not allow that reaction to swell past reasonable means, nor scar me for good.
Yet the society I am part of purely by birth seems obsessed with the almost paradoxical ideas that our emotions hold near-absolute sway over our lives, but we hold near-absolute sway over our external realities. Welcome to the American Dream.
External Control, Safe Spaces and The American Dream
So what do I mean when I talk about this paradox of emotions controlling us but us controlling our realities? Allow me a phrase here that carries a good deal of risk. Safe Space. Whatever you personally think of the idea of safe spaces, good idea, bad idea, what have you, here’s how they fit into the paradox I see. It is the idea that external reality CAN be brought under enough control that it will not harm vulnerable individuals.
Friends, this is, sadly, an impossibility. If there is a safe space in existence, we must, through our own actions, make our own minds that safe space, for there are times when even our homes are not a safe space. It’s a tragedy, but it’s true. Thus the concept of an external safe space, in my experience, is a paradox. In large part because a space that is safe for some will never be safe for others.
Now where does this leave us with the American Dream? Well, the idea that external safe spaces could be created seems to stem from the concept wrapped in the American Dream that we, as individuals, control our own destiny. Except we have no control over the future. Our actions may inform and persuade the path of our future, certainly. It’s unlikely someone who goes to medical school will get a job as a welder upon graduation. On the other hand, it’s possible that a welding student may sustain an injury outside of their training that leaves them unable to pursue their chosen craft.
A car crash or a hiking accident, for example, that leaves them physically incapable of sustaining the demands of a welding profession.
Perhaps the stress of medical school triggered an autoimmune disorder that leaves the medical student disabled and only able to sustain two to four hours of work a day. They can no longer be a doctor.
Let us suppose that these individuals make it into their respective careers? Well, then they must contend with all the external, uncontrolled variables of a changing job market, changing regulations, employers, co-workers that may or may not approve of them, etc. All they can control is their own actions.
Safety in Self Control
Yoda may be talking about questions, but think of this. If we can clear our mind of the expectation that we MUST react to everything, and instead we can begin to see that we are interdependent agents of action, perhaps we may begin to see the course of the world itself changing. I don’t know. That is a thing outside my control. 🙂
Yet if we can begin to see that we control our actions, and simply move through the world without overt concern for those things we cannot control, I believe we will be more at peace with both ourselves and the world. And yes, there are four more pieces to the Stoic puzzle I’m just starting to work out. These are core concepts and my musings on them. The next one we’ll look at is this. Events don’t upset you. Beliefs do.