Focus On What You Can Control (Week 9 of Wisdom)- Unearned Wisdom
“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 actions.”
These words by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus closely resemble the Serenity Prayer from Christianity, which was written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Epictetus advises us to pay attention only to things that are within our control.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
So, what should you try to control? Your choice of friends, opinions, aversions, desires, effort. But you can only partially control these things. And, it does not matter if you can have full control over things that are not important to you — it is only important that you have control over things that matter. Thus, the message of the Stoics and the Serenity Prayer, is to focus on the things that are partially within our control, rather than the things which are completely out of our control.
The past is outside your control; thus, you should not spend too much time time thinking about the past. Perhaps some reflection can be necessary and cathartic, as most psychoanalysts would tell you, but there is a danger to overdoing it. If too much attention is moved away from the present, which you can control, towards the past, you will find yourself in caught in cycles of rumination that are neither useful nor enjoyable.
Similarly, you cannot control your proclivities, but you can partially control how you develop them. If you have an innate talent for music, you cannot choose to not have this talent, but you can choose to either develop your talent, or to ignore it completely.
So, what is beyond our control? Reputation or people’s opinions of you. As much as you try, you will never be able to get everyone to think about you in the same way. Although you do have a natural proclivity to want to be popular, this does not mean that you cannot change how much value you place on being popular or validated by others.
As you have noticed, it is impossible to have full control over anything. But things are not either in your control or not, as Epictetus implied in his quote. There are things that you think are in your control that are not fully in your control, such as your proclivities, and there are things that are outside your control, yet are somewhat in your control, such as the importance you give to other people’s opinions.
A more accurate version of Epictetus’ injunction would be: “pay less attention to what is beyond your control and pay more attention to what is within your control.”
Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com.