Q:“Nothing goes my way. My job sucks—our customers are as annoying as my co-workers, and my boss is a moron. Things aren't any better at home. My spouse doesn’t trust me; my children don’t respect me. And the wider world is barreling hellward like a runaway train. The cesspool of popular culture is an affront on every level. Corporations and governments have the system rigged; only the rich get ahead. Politicians gorge themselves at the public trough and pander to every demographic but mine. I’m the wrong gender. I’m the wrong race. I’m the wrong age. I am powerless and I am angry. How am I supposed to shape a meaningful and free life when so much of reality is clearly beyond my control?”
A:“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. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
“The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you.”
Epictetus (AD c 55-135), Enchiridion 1
Epictetus’s point is a simple one: Our influence in the world extends only so far. We cannot, except in sharply limited ways, control our health, others’ opinions of us, the weather, the culture, the actions of our family members and neighbors, etc. A fundamental error of human perception—one that can take decades to correct—is the belief that the world should conform to my will. Demanding that life go entirely my way, and whining or wallowing in self-pity when it doesn’t, is the essence of immaturity. It is also the surest path to a lifetime of misery, dissatisfaction, and lazy cynicism, killing any hope of achieving reasonable levels of happiness and equanimity in life, to say nothing of wisdom.
But there is good news: We are freer than we know. Where it really matters, we do enjoy control, power, and freedom: in our attitudes, our thoughts, our beliefs, and our actions. However roughly we may be visited by those elements of reality that lie beyond our control, our response will always be up to us.
Stoicism, the philosophy that Epictetus practiced and taught, places supreme value on living in accord with reason and virtue, the pursuit of which lies entirely within our own power. The French historian of ancient philosophy Pierre Hadot draws the threads together nicely: “… it is not up to us to be beautiful, strong, healthy, or rich, or to escape suffering. All these things depend on causes which are external to us … . There is one thing, and only one, which does depend on us and which nothing can tear away from us: the will to do good and to act in conformity with reason … . The will to do good is an unbreachable fortress which everyone can construct within themselves. It is there that we can find freedom, independence, invulnerability, and that eminently Stoic value: coherence with ourselves.” (What Is Ancient Philosophy?, 2002)
But if I cannot control anything beyond the end of my own nose, is there any point to pursuing positive change in the world? Is this a call to apathy and capitulation? Far from it. First, our influence may extend farther than we know. Second, by the Stoics’ own teaching, we are all charged with doing our best, bounded by our reason and our abilities, to care for others and devote ourselves to the common good. The world, or fate, may thwart our efforts, but such a result is beyond our control and—per Epictetus and the Stoics—is not our concern.