Daily Stoicism: What We Control and What We Don't

Epictetus has us reflect on what we control in our lives and what we don’t. We control opinion, choice, desire, aversion, and anything of our own doing. We don’t control our body, property, position, and everything outside of our control. However, and this is crucial, our response to things outside of our control remains within our control.

I refer to the human response to events outside our control as luck (some people see this same concept as karma, some see it as the hand of god.) I believe I’ve reflected on luck before during these stoicism meditations, but it bears revisiting (and will likely stay on my mind for some time.)

If a person continually views himself as unlucky or cursed by god, he does not realize he can control his own luck. Consider Job, a biblical character who had nearly everything in his life go wrong. The story goes that Judeo Christian God tested him to see whether he praised God because of his protection and good fortune due to God (It actually turns out that Satan led to this testing – I lack strong education in biblical studies. Good overview here. Job curses the day of his birth, but stops short of accusing or cursing God.

While I do not believe in an almighty power, I do believe in the power of religion to impart basic values. In the case of Job, we see that God (or luck) controlled him rather than the opposite. Instead of blaming this force, Job accepted that a reason existed for his misfortune. Furthermore, he lamented his existence, but not the existence of a cruel deity (or bad luck.) In the end, because the bible likes fables, God restores his happiness because he passed the test. (As a side note, it turns out Job appears in Old Testament (Judaism), New Testament (Christianity), and Qu’ran (Islam)).

Strong parallels exist between Job and the idea of knowing what we control and what we don’t. If Job believed he controlled his property or position, nothing good would come of him. Had he not controlled his response to the events of losing his wealth, he would have ended up going insane. Instead, he bitterly accepted the events, never cursing God (his bad luck,) even though it clearly made him depressed.

Bad things happen to all of us. People who can accept the events as outside of their control and find a way to stay positive, or at least rational, tend to have better outcomes.

As I’ve started down the road of making my own luck, I generally have been happier and have had a more steady outlook on life. When someone smashed my car window, I could have looked at it as a terrible event, but instead I saw the positive that in ten years of living in a city and parking on the street it happened once. Five years ago I would not have had such a bright outlook. I can say categorically my life has improved as I’ve begun to control my responses to events outside of my control.