Philosophy Friday: Do You Control This?
Life is simple: Some things we control and others we do not. We don’t control the weather, markets, other people, traffic, pandemics, and even our bodies. That is not to say that we can’t influence them, but we don’t have anything close to complete control.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I can control.”
– Epictetus, Roman Philosopher
In each of our lives, there are domains where we can have absolute control: Our thoughts, attitudes, and voluntary actions. Here we are in charge—if we want to be. No one can take this from us, but we can relinquish it.
OK, all this sounds a bit like abstract nonsense.
Let’s get concrete with an example:
You’re sitting in horrendous rush hour traffic. You’re tired, and you just want to get home. It’d be easy to get upset about these people in their cars who are in your way. However, getting angry at the driver who forced himself into your lane is not the answer. The other drivers are not in your control.
On the other hand, you are in charge of your thoughts. You could think differently about this traffic jam you’re in, maybe listen to music, or look out the window and realise how beautiful the city you live in is. How lucky you and all the other people in their cars are even to have this supposedly miserable experience.
A little over a hundred years ago, you would have been on a horse cart, in the baking sun or pouring rain. The same road, if it existed at all, would have been a shoddy dirt track. The journey would have been long and uncomfortable. Yet here you sit snugly in your modern car with the air conditioning running.
Thinking like this, you realise how lucky you are. All of a sudden, sitting in gridlock becomes not only bearable but almost enjoyable.
And that is your real power—the ability to change your thinking about external events—the things you do not control.
Here is Epictetus one more time:
“What frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but how we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our judgement of them.”