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The Only Thing You Need to Get Good At

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A tiny article about Stoicism has had a significant influence on my life since I read it. Maybe for the first time in my adult life, I don’t feel like I’m wasting much of my time. I feel unusually prepared to do difficult things.

It was a short personal essay by Elif Batuman, about how reading Epictetus helped her through a strained relationship, political turmoil in her country of residence, and other messy or insoluble worldly concerns.

It also prompted me to start reading what are sometimes called the “big three” Stoic works, The Discourses and The Enchiridion by Epictetus, and The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, who in his spare time was the Emperor of Rome.

I knew the basic idea of Stoicism, and it made sense: don’t freak out about what you can’t control. It’s perfectly logical. But logical isn’t always practical, at least for a species whose members typically can’t even fulfill their own new year’s resolutions.

Humans have never been short on sensible-sounding advice: spend less than you earn, don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today, be patient, don’t drink coffee after 6pm. What we’re short of is whatever quality it takes to get ourselves to do those things.

But I wasn’t giving the Stoics enough credit. So far, their advice is very practical—more self-improvement suggestions than philosophical ideas. 

Basically, Epictetus tells you to continually divide your moment-to-moment concerns into two bins: the things you can control, and the things you can’t. Whenever you feel any sort of anger, desire or aversion, you look at the situation in terms of those two bins.

You quickly notice that the first bin is much, much smaller, and fortunately, it’s the one you’re responsible for. Essentially, it amounts to your actions and choices. The second bin is enormous, and it is the responsibility of the gods.

You can feel free to leave the gods’ enormous bin entirely up to them, as long as you do your best to tend to your small bin of personal choices and habits.

Of course, the larger bin still affects your life, even though you can’t (and shouldn’t try to) curate it. It contains matters such as when and how you die, how others act, the weather, and the stock market.

Obviously we have a stake in how those matters turn out, yet these outcomes aren’t really up to us, and we shouldn’t make ourselves miserable wishing they were. You will be treated unfairly, you will get sick, you will lose everything, and you will die, and the gods (or whatever forces there are) will deliver those fates to you as they please.

 

 

Stoicism gives you a very useful refrain towards these the matters that are out of your hands: That is none of my concern. Even in my initial experiments with it, it’s already become pretty easy to dismiss the largest categories of creeping worries, ones along the lines of:

What if ____ happens?

Why can’t ___ just ____?

I just wish _____.

Please let ____ be ____.

None of my concern! I can let the gods sort this stuff out, and attend to whatever actually ends up in my bin.

Our normal impulse is to see misfortune, loss, death, and the choices of others as primary concerns, since they can significantly affect our lives. But this is where the Stoics deviate from our natural inclinations. They offer a bold new take: a thing doesn’t automatically become your concern just because it might affect you.

The gods are doing things all day long that might affect you, but what they choose is their business. So any hoping or worrying you do about the to-do lists of the gods just makes you miserable and wastes your time. Epictetus would say it’s even kind of rude.

According to the Stoics, all day long you should be returning your attention to the relatively small realm you can control. Ultimately, your only concern is your own diligence in tending to your own bin, and that’s always up to you alone.

To the Stoic, life isn’t a juggling act between a thousand competing concerns. You have one concern, and that’s to tend your own garden, small or large as it is. It works the same for a slave (which is what Epictetus was when he was born) as it does for an Emperor (which is what Marcus Aurelius was when he died).

You might think we’re already pretty good at working on what we can control and leaving alone what we can’t. But this isn’t the way the untrained human mind works—we tend to ruminate over whatever we find emotionally compelling, from either sphere. If a politician does something we don’t like, we could burn unlimited energy getting enraged, even when we have no intention, or ability, to alter the proceedings. It’s possible to waste your whole life essentially shaking your fist at the clouds, completely preoccupied with where you are disempowered, overlooking every way in which you are empowered.

By reclaiming your energy, all day every day, from your sphere of concern (the range of things that appeal to your emotions) to your sphere of influence (the range of things you can affect) you are continually developing the essential Stoic skill of taking your lumps as they come, with minimal fuss and tantrum.

One way to think of it it is that the Stoic is making a practice out of shrinking the sphere of concern down to roughly the same size as the sphere of influence, where it finally becomes manageable.

 

 

As hard as life is, the only refuge you need, or ever have, is your own will to do what you can within your own sphere. That’s all you need to attend to, all you need to think about, all you need to get good at. You carry this refuge with you wherever you go, and nobody can take it away.

The practice of Stoicism is new to me, but its central insight isn’t. Buddhism has an almost identical interpretation of the human condition: our lives are vastly harder than they need to be, but only because we grasp at more control than is actually available to us.

I’ve been sold on this idea for years now—that happiness doesn’t come from finally learning how to control everything, but from finally learning how not to.

A passage from the Batuman article sums up this sense of carrying your empowerment with you, wherever you go:

When I read that nobody should ever feel ashamed to be alone or to be in a crowd, I realized that I often felt ashamed of both of those things. Epictetus’ advice: when alone, “call it peace and liberty, and consider yourself the gods’ equal”; in a crowd, think of yourself as a guest at an enormous party, and celebrate the best you can.

***

Photo by Erich Ferdinand. Drawings by David Cain.

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Paprad March 28, 2017 at 11:40 pm

Very interesting article, and I loved all the replies you gave, they were very insightful. Re the comment upthread about Hinduism. The Bhagawad Gita is not really a religious text, it’s more of a philosophical treatise – it got inserted into a long mythical epic about an ancient battle, which can be read as a metaphor or an allegory. Re dates, the Gita is believed to be around 5th century BCE, probably a while before the Budhdha was born. He was, indeed, born a Hindu (or what passed off as Hinduism then, the term came later) – so the themes in the Gita, about life/death/duty would have influenced him. His own introspection and meditation led to his drawing up a way to deal with life that was secular. The Gita itself is secular too, it’s been coopted by Hinduism, but that should not detract from its wisdom. I think what the gentleman upthread was referring to was the famous like in the Gita, that tells us that we only have right to action, not to the fruits thereof – and that outcomes are not within our control is a key element to the Gita. The idea that we should act in accordance to our Dharma is something that the Stoics talk about too.

David Cain March 29, 2017 at 2:05 pm

Thanks for the clarification Paprad. The only thing I know about the Bhagavad Gita is that people stop me on the street and try to get me to buy a copy. I’m a little confused by your last line here: are you saying the Stoics actually refer to the dharma? Or that the vedics, stoics and buddhists all recognize some relationship between suffering and the nature of existence and consciousness?

Paprad March 28, 2017 at 11:44 pm

This is a long read – and I haven’t gone through it myself in detail, but there could be something interesting if you want to look at Hinduism and Stoics :
http://www.studiesincomparativereligion.com/public/articles/Parallels_in_Hindu_and_Stoic_Ethical_Thought.aspx

Christoph March 29, 2017 at 3:51 am

Hi David, I like a lot of what I read in Epictetus’s essay, but with some of it I struggle. Take this for example:
“When you see anyone weeping in grief because his son has gone abroad, or is dead, or because he has suffered in his affairs, be careful that the appearance may not misdirect you. Instead, distinguish within your own mind, and be prepared to say, “It’s not the accident that distresses this person., because it doesn’t distress another person; it is the judgment which he makes about it.” As far as words go, however, don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either. ”

To me that seems to reflect quite an uncaring detached response that i do not like. I believe grief and sadness are very natural reactions to loosing someone you love. I go as far as saying they are the flipside of ‘risking’ to love: If you allow yourself to love a person you will be hurt if they are being harmed. That’s life. i have no problem with that.

To me it seems to reflect an aspect of stoicism or buddhism that doesn’t quite sit right with me. There is maybe too much tendency to distance oneself so not too feel bad, and that might also affect a tendency to not get too involved. Not to get too involved with your own children even, – and also not to get too involved politically.

Wanda April 16, 2017 at 6:51 pm

I think the perspective is not meant to say “do not be kind to this person”, but rather not to immerse yourself in their pain. Feeling their pain will not make them feel less pain. It will only make you feel pain. And it will not resolve the issue which they are feeling bad/sad/pain about.

Marcy March 29, 2017 at 7:17 am

Christoph, this makes perfect sense for someone who has looked into cognitive therapy.

“It’s not the accident that distresses this person, because it doesn’t distress another person; it is the judgment which he makes about it.” As far as words go, however, don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either. ”

When my grandmother died over a decade ago, I bawled like a baby for a couple hours and then I was done.

But there are people who can’t get past the death of a loved one. It’s not the fact that the person died that distresses them. It’s what they tell themselves.

“I can’t bear to live without him.”

“He shouldn’t have died.”

“It’s not fair.”

“What did I do to deserve this?”

“How am I going to manage without her?”

“My life will never be the same.”

I know it isn’t Stoicism, but check out the works of Albert Ellis, the psychologist. He’s the father of rational emotive therapy, which is like cognitive therapy. Basically, he says if you’re thinking rational thoughts, you will have normal emotions, like sadness and frustration. If you’re thinking irrational thoughts, you will have depression and anger/rage. And the irrational thoughts usually involve the word “should.”

So, a rational thought is, “I’ll never see my grandma again b/c she’s dead” So, it makes me sad and I cry. But an irrational thought would be, “She shouldn’t have died.” “I can’t be happy if my grandma is gone.” Things like that. And then I have a prolonged mourning.

So, I think when Epictetus says not to moan with him, he means not to validate the person’s irrational thoughts and encourage an inappropriate emotion.

Christoph March 29, 2017 at 3:53 pm

Hi Mary, I am actually fully familiar with cognitive therapies, – I just didn’t read Epictetus the same way. To me he wasn’t saying don’t get stuck in grie for too long, he is saying don’t grief / moan at all. It’s good to be able to detach from thoughts and emotions at times, but there is also a place for having deep emotions and expressing them. And for empathising with your fellow human beings. I can’t find that in his writings.

Paprad March 31, 2017 at 11:09 am

David, that link I gave talks of the parallels between the Bhagavad Gita and Stoicism, there’s a lot of detail there. I am not well-read on Stoicism but I was under the impression that one of the key tenets is that to lead a good life, man must seek fulfillment of his responsibilities – whether to self, society, God, etc. The Gita says that each man must follow/fulfil his own Dharma – loosely, right action. Looks like a similar prescription for how to lead a good life

Dave April 3, 2017 at 11:26 am

Nice article – you diagrams are helpful. I love the idea of only worrying about what you can control but then I hit a traffic jam on the way home and I stress out about that, then my ex-wife say something hurtful and I stress out about that. I worry about such silly, unimportant, uncontrollable things. Stoicism seems like such a difficult thing to put into practice even though it makes perfect sense. Sometimes I wish my brain just had an off button.

Wes Eads April 6, 2017 at 5:52 am

I have been told most of my life I am Stoic. I always took it wrong, as that I was tall and strong, like a tree or something. But reading the article, and comments after, I get a better understanding of what was meant by those comments. I look at life differently than most people I know. I do feel that many things are not under my control, so I should not dwell on them. The ones that are, have all my attention, and great care. One of my favorite sayings, “Not my monkeys, not my circus”.Death is another example, they were here, but now are gone. I remember their lives, and stories, but do not mourn their loss, although I do miss them, time to time…

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