- We cannot control what happens to us.
- The only thing we can control is our response to what happens to us.
In the summer of 2006, I fell sick for nearly two weeks. I don't know what hit me, but the two symptoms I was conscious of were (1) extreme fatigue and (2) prolonged and severe headaches. I was bedridden the majority of the time. Despite this, though, I somehow had the presence of mind to write "...we have good days and we have bad days, but we deserve neither." I realized that I was sick, but I realized as the first week wore on that the symptoms were lessening, that it would pass.
It was this attitude that allowed me to maintain my composure while I was sick, to not give in to despair. I simply laid in bed, resting, thinking of other things. I won't deny that if I could have fallen asleep and died that I would have welcomed the relief -- for such was my physical misery -- but I survived. The lesson of that sickness has stayed with me, and has guided my thinking ever since. It's important to me. I don't know where it came from, but ah! -- how useful it is.
We do have bad days. We're attacked by viruses, mistreated by others, are stuck in traffic jams, have unexpected financial difficulties -- in summary, suffer from circumstances beyond our control. You can't stop people from talking about you -- you can't help catching a viruses. The air is filled with them. On the same note, though, we also have good days where traffic moves just the way we want. We go to the zoo and the animals amuse us: our path crosses that of a friendly stranger, and we make a personal connection. We have an easy day at work -- we go outside and find that the weather is ideal.
The idea that we can keep bad things from happening, or make good thing happen, is behind every superstition. Our ancestors did rain dances and sacrificed virgins to keep the sun rising: our contemporaries pray to the heavens to send rain. They weep and pray at their alters, trying to invoke the gods' favor to give them a raise, find them a mate, keep them from harm. People buy rabbit's feet and contractors design buildings that skip from floor twelve to floor fourteen.
Despite all of this effort, though, they can't actually change what happens. If I pray to Athena for good traffic on my drive to someplace, the effect will be exactly the same as if I had prayed to a bag of Skittles or not prayed at all (provided the time I spent praying instead of driving is taken into consideration). I can be as friendly as I like to people, but I'm not going to generate "karma" that makes people treat me kindly in return. Oh, some will return my smile with a smile, but that's only a natural response in people who like being treated with friendliness. We can't change these vents of life, and we waste considerable time, effort, and energy in trying to do so.
As much as we can't control, though, there is one powerful thing we can control: our own mind. It's safe to say that our emotional impulses give us much reason for regret: we make bad choices on them, and later say "I wish I'd thought that through". How many people are in the prisons today because they did something out of impulse -- threw a punch at someone, for instance? Human beings are so passionate that many religions and philosophies push for more self-control. Even emotional Pentecostalism teaches that self-control is part of the fruit of the spirit -- although it's not actually practiced. (An ex-Pentecostal joke: when is self control not a fruit of the spirit? In a Pentecostal church.)
People do learn self-control in varying degrees. They learn fairly quickly, for instance, that you have to watch what you say in front of authority figures. Some people are better at controlling themselves than are others. But this kind of self-control is limited to what we do, to how we respond rather than react to what's done to us. It doesn't include an ability to control what we do by ourselves, or how we think -- and these things are just as if not more important.
Why is how we think important? I believe it is so because our thinking defines our reality. If you go outside and look at a tree, you're not really seeing the tree: you're seeing the image your brain drew of the tree, using the light that is reflected or absorbed from them and taken in by your cones and rods. If you have "normal" vision, you will see it as a collection of greens and browns, probably. But what if you're color-blind? What if the equipment that draws your image of a tree is different from most everybody else's? The image drawn will be different.
The same is true of every sense, I think. Our brains create a reality based our senses. This is true for the sense of reason, which has to be trained rather than being automatic. (The idea of reason as a sense is another essay, I think.) I learned at a fairly young age that I could manipulate the way I sensed things. Have you ever noticed that a location that is new to you looks different than it does when you're familiar with it? Take a house -- does it "feel" different from the way it did when you first moved in? When things are new, they are colored by our imagination, by possibilities: when we are familiar with them, they're colored by our experiences. I realized that I could manipulate my thinking and see something old through new eyes -- and see something new through a sense of familiarity.
Not everyone is conscious of this: just last year, while walking up the stairs in my residency hall at my university, I commented to someone that 'I can still see this place the way it was when I first moved in.' He turned his head and looked at me, replying "It looks just the same. We haven't changed anything..." It wasn't the sight of the place, it was feeling of the place: what it meant, and through that, how it looked. It's a subtle difference, and I'm not sure how to explain it. But this taught me that I could manipulate the way I thought about things.
In late 2006 or early 2007, I read an essay titled Humanist Spirituality: Oxymoron or Authentic Path to Enlightenment? by Doug Muder, a Unitarian minister. In it, he explores the idea of spirituality, and connects it to the Stoic practice of being mindful of one's thoughts: of thinking about how you think and how your thoughts impact your state of mind. The lecture impressed me to the point that I re-read it every so often, and when I read it I began trying to put it into practice. I began to examine my thoughts, to apply reason to them and ask if they were doing me any good. When the way people treated me inspired anger, I seized that anger and thought: will growing angry do me any good? Or will it just make matters worse? When I want to give in to hate, I think: do I really want to sacrifice part of my emotional well-being to this person? Why? When I grew upset or despair at a situation, I turned that anger or despair into the willpower to change the situation. I forced my emotions to work for me -- and if they weren't useful, I neutered them. The podcasts of Zelig Pliskin -- amusingly, an Orthdox rabbi- helped. He advises his listeners to think about the way they're thinking and feeling, to apply reason to them.
I think that this Stoicism is a logical extension of being a freethinker. I said in my "This I Believe" essay that inspired by the successes of the scientific method, I adopted critical thinking as part of my worldview. If I use reason as my guide for what I believe, why not use it to order the way I think? A year ago -- Thanksgiving week, 2007 -- I read my first bit of Stoic literature, that of Marcus Aurelius' meditations. Shortly before Thanksgiving this week, I read Epictetus' Discourses and Manual for Virtuous Living. In both, I found amazing insights that built on this distinction between that which we can control and that which we can't. I've shared my favorite quotations from Aurelius before, and I plan to post my favorites from Epictetus in a week or so. I've been thinking about writing this essay -- or musing, whichever it has turned out to be -- since the summer, and I didn't want to post Epictetus until after posting this. The reason is partly vanity: the distinction between what we can control and what we can't is the essence of everything Epictetus said, and I like the fact that the stuff I think of independently has already been thought of before by people I consider wise. It makes me think I'm doing something right.
Because I read Epictetus before I finished articulating my own thoughts, I'm going to end this with a few quotations from his works that illustrate the theme of what I was writing about. It seems an apt way to conclude.
Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: some things are within our control, and some things are not. Keep your attention focuses entirely on what is truly your own concern, and be clear that what belongs to others is their business and none of yours.
When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it: you can either accept it or resent it. What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance. [...] We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.
People don't have the power to hurt you. Even if someone shouts abuse at your or strikes you, if you are insulted, it is always your choice to vie w what is happening as insulting or not. If someone irritates you, it is only your own response that is irritating you.