What Next after Week Three?

Congratulations on completing the lesson for Week Three.  Now it’s time to start putting things into practice!

You should start using the techniques covered right now, if possible, and continue with them each day throughout the following week.  If you think you might have any problems adhering to the daily practices, or need any clarification, get in touch right away with the course facilitator.

However, your first step should be to visit the Comments section below, as soon as you’re ready, and post your thoughts on the question for this week:

What are the benefits of recalling what’s under your control and what isn’t in difficult situations?  What would be the long-term consequences of blurring this distinction?

Here’s a second question for you to consider, and discuss, if you want:

Are the Stoics right to say that only our own actions, in a nutshell, are truly under our control?

Go to the course Comments section now and post your thoughts.

If there’s anything whatsoever you could use help with, either technical stuff or the course content, please don’t hesitate to contact the course facilitator.

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57 replies on “What Next after Week Three?”

Q#1: What are the benefits of recalling what’s under your control and what isn’t in difficult situations? Q#1a: What would be the long-term consequences of blurring this distinction?

A#1: In determining how to respond to some event knowing what is under your control would benefit identifying solutions. This should prevent wasting time, energy, money, resources and instill a level of confidence in one’s own ability while ‘keeping it real’ and eliminate worry about unforeseen unknowns.

A#1a: Wasting resources (time, energy, money, etc). It could foster grandiosity or loss of self-esteem and allow for worry of the unknown. Long-term this could impact health and well as finances and relationships.

Benefits:

Determine quickly what you can impact and what you can’t which then allows you to focus on the right area in the most tranquil way.

I believe the stoics are right in their belief that we can only truly control our own actions. I do believe though our actions can influence others but not always in a predictable way.

Q: What would be the long-term consequences of blurring the distinction between what’s under our control and what isn’t in difficult situations?

It would tend to lead one to either taking on infinite responsibility because everything was their responsibility, which would lead to lots of worry and frantic action, with much suffering but without much personal benefit. Alternatively, it would lead others to giving up in life because nothing is under their control in difficult situations and so to lots of worry but inaction, again with much suffering without personal benefit.

It gives you focus, if you do not spend energy on things you cannot change, and it will mean less frustration.

For healthy and sane people, yes, your actions are under your control.
It does make me wonder whether somebody suffering from all alzheimer could benefit from stoic techniques.

Q: What are the benefits of recalling what’s under your control and what isn’t in difficult situations? What would be the long-term consequences of blurring this distinction?

A: Recalling what’s under one’s control helps to put in perspective the situation one faces. It’s helpful to determine what is to be done and move faster towards a productive solution, if such solution is possible.

Q: Are the Stoics right to say that only our own actions, in a nutshell, are truly under our control?

A: I believe so. While we can attempt to influence the actions of others, the outcome is not guaranteed at all. At any time, all we can do is do what we can best, and not being concerned about the outcome.

I’m inclined to agree with your answer that we should do our best, but not be concerned about the outcome. I’m also interested in whether this has been the case, for the most part, for you.

What are the benefits of recalling what’s under your control and what isn’t in difficult situations? What would be the long-term consequences of blurring this distinction?

suggest at one level the ‘gaining perspective’ can allow a more reasoned and virtuous ‘reaction’ to situations that occur. Blurring the distinction could lead to dwelling/focusing on what is out of control rather than spending time in the moment, by knowing what is in and out of control could lead to making choices that are healthier.

Are the Stoics right to say that only our own actions, in a nutshell, are truly under our control?
Yes, but personally find this a tricky concept to deal with. Its quite an obvious concept, but a difficult one to live by

Answer to Q1: I believe that there are two main benefits of recalling what is under my control and what is not. First, you may feel more relaxed because many things make you anxious because you fail at trying to control what was not under your control in first place. Second, you can see how to arrive to the best solution when you see that a problem is real, you don’t waste your time trying to control things that are not under your control, and focus on controlling things that you can actually control or at least try to influence.

Answer to Q2: Maybe is not so simple, as our actions are determined by our genes and by our past experiences and actions. By exercising we can alter consciously how we will act in the future, for example trying to have less anger when facing a future argument. I belive that there may be a continuum, where our future actions are the closest thing to be totally under our control. Then, there are things that are further from our control but our actions may influence, like our healt and maybe our reputation, although even further from our control. And then there are the things that we cannot control at all, that perhaps are most of the things.

(Sorry for my poor english)

Hi Richi,

I’m interested in how you’ve arrived at better solutions when you’ve determined what was in your control and what not in your control. Could you illustrate an example from your life about this?

Here’s an example from my own life. I recognized that I don’t have programming experience, and I’m worried that I’ll be find a specific program to use in my experiment. I recognized that I can’t control that I didn’t learn how to code in the past, and that there weren’t any pre-written scripts that I could immediately use. However, I recognized that what was in my control was how much negative value I would attach to the outcome of having (or not) this specific program. I decided that in this next few days, I’m going to learn as much as I can from demos and other scripts and try to make one on my own … from scratch. That’s an overbearing stretch goal, but I recognize that I cannot control whether I’ll have the program, but I can control whether I put in the effort to make the program. In the end, even if I don’t successfully code it within the next week, I’ll have started my journey to learn how to code. This means in the future, I’ll be better prepared with the skills necessary to tackle any coding problem I’ll have.

Best,
Rich 🙂

The benefits of recalling what’s under my own control in a difficult situation allows me to not focus on what I can’t influence and turn to what I can if that idea is truly internalized.

The Stoics are mostly right. We do have degrees of influence for externals, but the exact degree is hard to know and they’re rarely in our complete control. Also, some of our own actions may NOT be in our control. Our minds wander, our bodies can fail, and our cognition can have limits. So, while in some ways they may be a tad overpessimisstic, in others I think the ancient Stoics were overly optimistic.

What are the benefits of recalling what’s under your control and what isn’t in difficult situations? What would be the long-term consequences of blurring this distinction?
The benefits of recalling what’s under my control is to recognize the parts of the situation that I can put effort into and see some results. Recognizing what isn’t under my control will allow me to the opportunity to put in to practice the skill of “cognitive distancing” and being indifferent to the results of those aspects. The long-term consequence is to be needlessly anxious and worrisome over the parts of the situations that I cannot control. Furthermore, by needlessly worrying about the parts I should be indifferent to, I have less energy to put towards the aspects of the situation that I CAN change. Thus, there’s the double whammy of increased time spent on unproductive behavior and therefore less time available for productive behavior.

Are the Stoics right to say that only our own actions, in a nutshell, are truly under our control?

At first, I’d like to entertain the skeptic in me and say no, that our actions are not the only things under our control. However, what else would possible be under our control? How might I prove this wrong? To prove this wrong, I would need to show that something outside of my own actions can be controlled by me: other people’s actions, the environment, the political atmosphere, climate, etc. Let’s say I can control other people’s actions … let’s say I can control and manipulate people into giving me their money and this hasn’t failed me. In this instance, if I really have always have been able to manipulate people into giving me their money, would I have always been in control of those specific actions outside of my own? However, in real life, this is not always the case, so let’s try to disprove it with another idea that better reflects reality. For instance, if I drop a ball, it will fall to the ground. I could say this, I am completely controlling the fact that I want the ball to drop to the ground when I drop it. However, there’s other factors that are in play here: gravity, wind, etc. Without gravity, the ball wouldn’t drop to the ground if I released it… and so on if I apply this logic. Then it’s only my actions that i get to decide.

However, I’d like to further say that even then, I don’t get to decide some of my actions. For instance, if I were to have tourettes syndrome or tics, then I would involuntarily have outbursts or motor movements. Thus, I would not have complete control over my own actions. Or in another instance, if I were to take caffeine, I would not be able to control the fact that my blood pressure would increase and my heart rate would increase. However, what I can control is how much effort (in terms of perceptual quantity) I allocate towards a particular task and how I want to pursue my thoughts.

Furthermore, given the increasing amount of research on the neurological processes that occur and how we might not fully have free will, I am disinclined to say we have full control over our actions and our thoughts. However, I do think that some aspects of our thoughts and actions we do have control over. This is an expansion of the “effort” idea that I put forth before. We can control how much effort we put into any particular thought strategy or action pattern that we take. For instance, I can decide whether I want to push through the numerous thoughts and distractions that occur in my head so that I can complete the leaves in a stream exercise or decide whether I want to just go to sleep instead. I can decide whether I want to show up to the gym or just lay around. It’s definitely a fine line between what we control and do not control, but there are definitely aspects of our actions in which we have near-complete control over. However, I do hesitate to say which aspects of our actions we have COMPLETE control over. What are your thoughts on how we can differentiate between the aspects of our actions or thoughts that we have complete control over in every instance or near-complete or varying degrees of control?

The ancient Stoics would definitely agree that we do not have full control over our actions and our thoughts. Epictetus just means that some of our actions are voluntary, and those are the only things under our direct control. For instance, Epictetus himself gives the example of jumping from fright – the startle reflex – and Seneca the examples of blushing, stammering, and sweating, as emotional responses not under our direct control. They also recognise that some of our thoughts are automatic, although our responses to those thoughts may be voluntary.

Just a skim of my initial thoughts…
We all live on “the Autism Scale” even though we never think about it. The extremely autistic individual cannot read another person’s emotions, and, it is believed, has absolutely no real contact with or understanding of his or her own emotional state. On the opposite end of the scale is the person who is virtually an empath, to whom all people walk around with their hearts on their sleeves, and for whom their own emotions are fully revealed at all times and are, by some point in their lives, fully under their own command. For most of us, of course, our position is located in a mass towards the center of the scale.
The Stoic “sages” never understood this. They had no way of even contemplating this, no science to imagine it. Yet their philosophy was based in great measure upon the reasoning of their best science. So, to incorporate their thinking, we have to reimagine what they knew into what we know. And, with what we know, particularly using this one example of the Autism scale, we know that a great many of us live on that part of the scale that may limit our ability, in some degree, to be in full command of our emotions, placed there not by choice but by birth.
This does not mean we are beyond making the effort. I saw someone reveal a post the other day, a quote from Marcus: “Stop trying to be a good man, and just be one.” A fair thing to say if one could imagine it possible for everyone to do. But now we know better. I think it is also possible to say that in the act of trying one is being. In the act of making the effort one is doing.
We have no idea what tomorrow brings to us or to our efforts. Every day not only do we surprise ourselves but the world brings new gifts to us. There is no reason to not continue making the effort to reach our goals. Every small step forward is a step forward and nothing–no hindrance, no “setback”—makes that step forward less of a step forward.

When I recall what is not under my control I am able to move on to important thoughts. When I blur this distinction I obsess about things I cannot control and get stuck.

When I am stuck I become anxious , depressed , uneasy. When I am able to recognize that I cannot control many things, it lightens my mood, calms me and allows me to thrive.

Q1: Trying to act as though things are under my control when they actually are not seems to be a recipe for disaster, if not a definition of insanity. My energy would be better spent trying to influence the things that I really can decide.

In the long run I might risk regarding myself as incompetent or worthless – after all, I have done everything to accomplish X, but to no avail! There must be something wrong with me! Or even worse: if things just happen to end up the way I wanted, I might even believe I had something to do with the favourable outcome – and my, didn´t I do a great job! Applause, please!

No wisdom in that direction.

Regarding Q2 I´m not sure even our own actions are completely under our control if you concider that we all have years and decades of preprogramming – except maybe for “the Sage” who, presumably, is mindful 24/7.

I think you touched on something important, the idea that we have had years of experience shaping our habits, thoughts, and actions into who we are today. And you cannot totally obliterate that away and replace it with something else. To continue, there are actions that we don’t control like the startle reflex (which have been addressed by the stoics, according to Donald Robertson), intrusive thoughts, tics, etc. However, whether we decide to make an effort to change those thoughts and the programming that we have is something I think is up to us.

I agree that you cannot be mindful 24/7, especially if you haven’t been mindful for the decades of your life leading up to this point. However, I believe that if you become mindful of your programming, what this training seeks to provide, then you’ll be able to slowly identify which parts of your programming are “buggy” and clearly out of line with reality. Then, the next step is the slow, plodding journey with tons of backsliding, plateaus, and moments when you break through to the next step of reworking your programming. To make this more concrete, I talk about this example in terms of physical fitness and the gym.

Imagine that you’ve lived your entire life with head slumped forward, shoulders rolled forward, with aches and pains all over. And throughout your life, you thought it was normal to feel neck pain before, during, and after a day’s work. Then, one day, you found out that there are a bunch of people with good postures, with their head held high, chest out, shoulders back, etc. These people, who you meet for the first time, take note of your situation and offer you assistance, a guide to remedy your posture problems for the long-term. They give you a set of exercises to do, with varying levels of difficulty to help you progress as you get better posture. However, you try out the first ones and you say “I can’t do this. My shoulders and head are already slumping forward. That’s just the way they’re programmed to be and I can’t control that they want to do that.” If you believed that this was the permanent case, then obviously, you wouldn’t be able to change this. However, suppose you decide to consistently do those set of posture-correction exercises starting at the easiest level day-after-day, month-after-month. Would you think that you wouldn’t see results? Or that your shoulders and head would still slump forward as much after that long period of consistent training? I think not.

And for me, this is how Stoicism is related to controlling our own actions: by making us aware of our limitations, we can slowly put forth conscious effort to overcome out past programming and implement better and improved programming. In the short run, our actions (eg. the forward slumping head) is not under our control, but as we continue to put forth the effort, we begin to gain more control over our actions.

For anyone who hasn’t seen this, Donald Robertson just shared this article on how shifts in personality CAN occur: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/06/30/484053435/personality-can-change-over-a-lifetime-and-usually-for-the-better.

In summary, as people age, they tend to become more agreeable, conscientious and emotionally resilient with age. Moreover, Hudson and Fraley (2015) have shown that people may be able to change their personality through setting specific goals and sustained effort over a long period of time. Through practicing Stoicism (or some other set of exercises and mindsets), we have this opportunity to change our personality to become of what we want. Moreover, as we gain better control over ourselves, I suspect that we will have better well-being. Specht, Egloff, and Sschmukle (2012) and Soto (2014) make the case that well-being and the speed of personality change (for the better) are reciprocally linked; as well-being improves, so does speed of personality change. If this is the case, then through gaining a more rational perspective on when to invest our energies/worries and reducing the impact of the “external” objects, we stand to improve our well-being and therefore the speed at which we change our personalities.

Q1: In difficult situations, the benefit of focusing on what is under my control and what isn’t will allow me to act appropriately to best solve the problem I’m facing. It would be a waste of time to worry or spend my actions fruitlessly on something I had no control over. The long term consequences of not knowing the difference would be unnecessary anxiety, stress and its accompanying health problems and maladaptive behaviors.
Q2: I don’t know that I agree that only our own actions are truly under our control. We have years of conditioning, habits, environment and genetic predisposition to wrestle with, not an easy feat. But I do agree it is our best hope at having any control at all.

I don’t believe it is a matter of not having control, or not being able to control “outside” events. Certainly, you may be able to do so. But the ability to do so is 1) very limited; 2) almost always diminishes your ability to control yourself; 3) almost always perpetuates a negative force within yourself in order to do so. So, why would you want to focus any of your time or effort on controlling outside events when you need all of your time and energy on controlling yourself?

Perhaps I did not state clearly what I meant in Q2. I agree with you. I was trying to say that even controlling ourselves is difficult, the one area where we have the most control. No, definitely don’t waste your time trying to control something you have no control over!

Extraordinarily enough, my last ten days have been fairly full of events which have been beyond my control. The benefit of clearly labelling those events has not removed the very real emotional response (anger, fear, sorrow etc.) and of course I am a long way from being any kind of expert, but actually I begin to perceive that having a system to file events in a sensible place in the interim does appear to make them more manageable. Dare I say it, almost akin to watching your budget (I’m sure I’ll be shot by the philosophers); the discipline of logging your costs, helps you to rationalise them and deal with them in a more grown up way. So it’s a kind of control.

Every individual’s perspective must be different. Or are we more similar than we know? Would our assessments of what is good and bad be recognisable by each other, wherever in the world we live.

I think if we all could figure out a way to step back more often we would, ultimately find that we have much more in common than we seem too, tady; but, still, we would have our differences as individuals and as social groups. However, I also believe that the stepping back, and the commonality we find as a result, would do more to bring us together as a people than the individual and social differences would do to divide us, the way they do now.

At my age, everything I “do” externally seems to be down to something of a science out of years of habit, so I can say with some confidence that so little of it can be considered “wasteful,” or “unnecessary,” as to be negligible. Even the apparently “wasteful” is necessary at this stage. One does have to “kick-back” once in a while, or go crazy.
But, the interior story is not so simple. The mind whirs on and those “bad habits” of drifting into conversations with self (often mock conversations with others; rehearsals with the future or the past) continue to occur whenever you don’t or cannot focus fully on that object or task directly in front of you.
Ironically, the meditations force us to bring this process out more and it may seem to be an irritation at times rather than a salve. But we really don’t need or want a salve. And it truly isn’t an irritation, but merely a mirror, or perhaps more of a microscope, a way of more closely looking at the processes of our own thoughts. This is a necessity, and one easily used to replace any unnecessary items in our daily life whenever possible.
But not when operating heavy machinery.

This is the first time I’ve posted a comment. Been away on holiday for 2 weeks with no access to internet. Have been using the 2014 course to work from – I had the foresight to download the programme before going which was just as well. The practice on holiday was really quite easy – not much stress and plenty of time. Since I’ve been back, it’s a different story – straight into old habits and reactions. Taking time out today to reflect and regroup – hence this comment. The main issue is with automatic responding, although it is also hard to know when to classify something as a preferred indifferent and when it really matters. The danger is I think is in becoming apathetic to external events like injustices because they may be out of my direct control. It seems to me that the problem is that the virtues themselves are open to interpretation depending on what my own values are. Recent events in UK politics are an example. Should I just say, these don’t really matter because the outcomes are outside my direct control or stand up for what I believe to be right?

I come from a therapeutic background & the other problem I see is in a temptation to conflate Stoicism with therapy. Even though Stoicism influenced CBT, I worry about the tendency to pathologist everything over recent years. For example, I struggle with mindfulness being detached from it’s Buddhist context & hope that something similar doesn’t happen to Stoicism. I am aware that there are pros and cons to this argument and that others may have different views. For the moment, the important thing that is under my control is to continue with the practice the best way I can & see where it leads.

Although I have participated in a number of Stoic training events over the years, e.g. Stoic Week and Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training, I have often found it difficult to stop and ask myself how I can apply what I have learned in the workshop. Sadly, all too often I allow myself to get caught up in a situation and fail to make use of the skills that I have learned. This time around though I have made a special effort to be mindful of opportunities for Stoic training.

For example, here in the USA we just celebrated the 4th of July. Fireworks, of course, are part of the celebration; and that is fine. When midnight rolled around, however, and there were still people lighting fireworks in my neighborhood, the irritation started to set in. The automatic criticisms began in typical fashion, with an “inner monologue”: “Why are these jerks still lighting fireworks at midnight?” “Don’t they realize that there are other people next door?” “Don’t they realize that some of us need sleep so that we can get up for work in the morning?”

At that moment I decided to take action. First, I changed the inner monologue and said to myself, “What a perfect opportunity to practice Stoicism!” Then, I reached for my copy of Marcus’s Meditations and turned to 2.1 where he reminds himself that throughout the day he will meet a host of obnoxious people; but that because we are part of the same rational body we should not be carried away by our anger. Then, after reminding myself, “this is not “’up to me,’” I closed my eyes and tried “cognitive distancing”: “These thoughts of anger and irritation are just impressions in the mind.” I repeated this with my breathing as a kind of mantra, and found myself getting sleepy. Despite the occasional popping of fireworks, I finally drifted off to sleep.

When I woke up in the morning I was pleasantly surprised. Not only did I drift off to sleep, I was able to take advantage of the opportunity and put some Stoic skills into practice!

I commend you for turning your moments full of negative criticisms into an opportunity to practice stoicism. Is it also possible to ask them to not light the fire works? It is probably not feasible to expect them to stop, though I wonder if there are other actions you could have taken too. One thing I do enjoy about practicing Stoicism is being able to learn how to cognitively distance myself from worry and recognizing the moments when I do have negative moments, however, I’m also interested in recognizing the actions I could take or you could take to reduce the disturbance on you.

In difficult situations, the benefit of recalling what’s not under your control makes it possible to stop investing energy in those things while recalling what is under your control allows you to pour your energy into that which you can affect. This sounds over-simplified, I realize; however, the idea of not allowing the situation to divide your mind, to me, seems really important. Failing to do this, in a sense, allows the situation to become an opponent which divides and conquers. At least half of your energy is wasted since it is going to projects that have no chance of success while that which you can affect gets only half the attention you could give. Also, the energy wasted on those things you can’t affect wears on a person making it harder to be strong during the conflict. I’m not sure that’s well stated, but it makes sense to me…

I believe that what you’re saying is that by becoming aware of what you can and cannot control, you gain the opportunity to withdraw from worrying about what you cannot control. In withdrawing from what you cannot control, you will be left with more energy to pursue other, more worthwhile, projects. For example, if I recognize that I cannot control whether my friends reply to me within an hour, four hours, a day after receiving my message, then I can decide to continue on with my own plans rather than waiting for them or worrying if they’ll get back to me. This frees up both the time I’d spend waiting for their reply and spares my emotional and mental health when I worry about what I can do in the moment rather in the future.

Richard, I would have to agree with you. Also, I think what you’ve described in that example IS the best way to operate in that situation. This is all so direct and simple, yet it is liberating if you can accept the rules. I really like it.

And, thanks for the response, Richard.

“What are the benefits of recalling what’s under your control and what isn’t in difficult situations? What would be the long-term consequences of blurring this distinction?”

For me it seems to derail unhealthy trains of thought by bracketing those parts that I can do something about. Often I’m anxious about things well beyond my control. That puts external things in control of my mental and emotional states.

“Are the Stoics right to say that only our own actions, in a nutshell, are truly under our control?”

I lean toward thinking that at least some of the time my actions are under my control in the sense that I’m acting in ways I desire.

Anxiety is something that I’d say I struggle with too. It’s the intrusive thoughts, the tendency for me to have these negative judgments and reactionary mental comments that fill much of my mental train of thought.

Josef, you’ve noticed that by beginning to practice “cognitive distancing,” that you’re better able to compartmentalize your thoughts into “things I can control” and “things I cannot control,” which has helped you resist your thoughts taking you along for a ride. That’s definitely a benefit I’ve been noticing these past few days as well. Since starting the “Leaves on a Stream” meditation, I noticed that sometimes I can acknowledge the intrusive thought I’m having and then mentally “zoom out” on the thought and decide that I don’t want to continue having that thought. Of course, the thoughts come back, but simply becoming more aware (noticing 30 instances of negative thoughts a day compared to only 6) has helped me better notice the early-warning signs of when I’m at risk to get stuck in a negative thought loop.

Have you been continuing your practice of the Leaves on a Stream meditation? If so, what is your experience like when you do it? Have you been using any specific strategies to better visualize the leaves/stream?

“Leaves on a Stream” has been the most useful technique for so far, actually. I had my car malfunction recently and started to worry about the problem to the point of becoming anxious. I imagined “wrapping” that worry in brown paper and placing it on a leaf to be carried away with the stream. What is wrong with the car isn’t up to me after all. That reads pretty silly, but it worked to stabilize my emotional state while I waited for the results, which weren’t as bad as I’d imagined.

I’m glad you had that experience (your application of the skill you’ve gained from the meditation). I don’t think it’s silly at all; I hope to be able to do what you have been doing with my own troubles in the upcoming days. Getting lost in worry is something I do have trouble with, and would like to also be able to stabilize my emotional state.

I belong to a Facebook group of professional and amateur naturalists in the state of Tennessee in the United States. We help each other to identify things, we share photographs and stories, etc. Normally there isn’t much more to it than that, and our posts quickly disappear into the ether, unless something dramatic occurs, as when someone is snakebit and has to go to an emergency room, so everyone stays in touch online.
The United States Civil Code, a vast and complex body of laws understood by no one individual and misunderstood by most everyone, contains The Migratory Bird Act of 1916, in the body of which is the provision that makes it illegal for anyone to pick up from the ground and possess a bird feather for private use. The purpose of this provision was to keep hunters from killing birds for their feathers, then claiming they had found them by accident. (In 1916, this practice was common and multiple species of birds were being decimated.)
Like millions of others, since childhood I blissfully ignored this provision and picked up the random pretty feather at my feet, and did so without prosecution (thankfully) although, once I became aware of the law, I stopped. Yesterday, the topic came up on our page, first as a question about the storage and preparation for use of a bird feather. Of course, it broke into a fight rather quickly. Some people were outraged over “government overreach.” Others outraged that people could be so “cruel to our birds.”
Being a rather uncommon event, a few of us tried to calm things down, first by indicating that this was not the appropriate place for such an argument, then by reminding those doing so that they should stop admitting to breaking the law because the site was, as always, monitored by both Federal and State authorities. Indeed, shortly thereafter, a Federal officer who happened also to be a member, joined the conversation with some additional, helpful insight, and repeated our rhetorical mentions of the phrase: “HINT HINT HINT.”
Of course, one hopes that no Gestapo is going to break down anyone’s door unnecessarily. But the primary concerns here were over balance and the appropriateness of time and place. Further, as the “conversation” proceeded, it became clear that the usual Facebook misconduct of not taking the time to read previous posts prior to posting one’s own was occurring as well. We began “hinting” that the administrator might want to delete the entire thing. But, apparently, he was either having a good time watching it all take place or taking the day off.
When I awoke this morning, more than 18 hours later, no snakes had bitten, but this fight was going, still.
This was when it struck me that, as a member, I might have an obligation to do or say something—to put my foot down, as it were—to take some responsibility, to exercise some measure of control. But did I have any?
I had controlled myself, throughout. I had thought of one or two posts and cancelled them as too inflammatory, too incautious. But now I had to think in terms of my control over this external matter, and, indeed, in place of someone who had stepped aside—consciously or otherwise—from his administrative control over things. Was it my place? Would it have any effect? Was it worth the effort in any event? In all likelihood, this mess would die out in its own time. But what will it leave in its wake? If I step in to stop it, even if what I do has some effect, will what I do undo the mess? Will anything I am capable of doing make anything “better” at this point?
All of my life I have been taught to struggle, and to work for social causes, to engage. Throughout the “Me Generation” years I fought harder to stand aside and allow them to pass by. So, despite receiving overwhelmingly negative responses to these questions in my mind, I finally gave in to my life-long habits and formulated a mild, put-my-foot-down post written as a response to several later complaints about the nature of the thread.
And what did I achieve? A mixed response. A handful of “likes.” And a fistful of rabid posts about my snotty attempt at controlling the debate. And no positive result. A wasted effort and a feeling of frustration.
What had I controlled? Nothing. What could I have controlled? Nothing. I threw myself into the middle of a swarm of bees and asked them to form a line and start singing in unison Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” What, exactly, should I have expected to happen?
What had the Administrator done? More than likely he saw what was coming and ran the other way.

Mostly in response to John F, today, but also in general: I had a wonderful philosophy teacher in graduate school, Dr. Eve Taylor-Bennett, who gifted me with an insight that I cherish. “Schools” of philosophy are simply “labels” we use for purposes of easy classification in classrooms and libraries. The philosophies themselves are meant to be taken and used personally, on an individual basis. They still have to be taught to us via the labels, but we learn them, absorb them—hopefully—as individuals. When we do, they don’t admonish us to fall into some line of thought that we have to struggle with, but into a comfortable space that naturally suits us (given the proviso that we aren’t misunderstanding the ideas completely!). And, I would argue, therapies (and therapists) function the same.
Also, I too struggle with this issue of politics and social engagement and take comfort in what the Stoics have to say, particularly Marcus (sometimes!) although it does get outright confusing especially when it comes to terms like “detachment.” But these are mental abstractions and we have to avoid combining what we do in the solace of our minds with our conceptions of the real world on a day-to-day basis. The simple point is that we can do anything we want, both in our minds and in the world, but we want to strive to do in both places what is most virtuous. At least, that is how I have come to read and understand Stoicism.

Well, it was good to get a reply. I guess that aspects of my working life can be very territorial i.e. schools of therapy, professional roles etc. What is regarded as evidence based and what isn’t etc. My own interest in Stoicism was to explore something which is as yet relatively untouched by the tendency to package ideas into a form of saleable commodity & which can make sense as an antidote to a consumerist or materialist approach – which I now find quite depressing. Even as I say this I can sense a spark almost of stoic fundamentalist/idealism – “Let’s keep it pure etc”. Beyond this I think that the beauty of philosophy is that it does offer room for debate & perhaps even thrives on it. I am no longer in the flush of youth or even middle age & part of my investment in Stoicism is to find a path that can guide my later years. So far, Stoicism is the one thing that I feel comfortable enough with to want to really give it a go.

Is it appropriate for me to ask this?

I wonder why so few people are replying to people’s comments. There was more “conversation” during the first week. Does it have anything to do with this matter of control over external events?

I personally think it’s not as easy to get into conversation or see conversation compared to other discussion sites like Reddit or a forum. Unless you’re subscribed to the thread, you won’t see people’s replies. In contrast, on reddit, you’ll be able to see new posts when you go to the website. Furthermore, I think that there’s not much incentive to come back day-after-day. For me personally, I could very well choose to read the material on day 1 and just do the practices throughout the week., but I choose to come back and see if I could contribute. All in all, it’s just not as convenient.

Yeah, I don’t receive email notifications or anything. I found it easier to discuss ideas in here at first, but have found alternative means to be more conducive to a conversational format.

As for Q1, the biggest take away is you are not “responsible” for everything that happens, you essentially let yourself “off the hook” for circumstances and situations that are not within your control.

This was a huge adjustment for me to make, as I am a bit of a control freak, but when I did make it, the ability to keep things in perspective and not blow them out of proportion enabled me to keep such a better mindset. I knew they were not within my power to control, so I should not “beat myself up” if things did not go well.

It also really forces you to focus on the things you can control and to better spend your energy there.

Honestly, it really freaks me out how much like budgeting this is. :^)

As to the second half of the question, if you blur the distinction, you will feel responsible for everything, things within your power and things not within you power, and that is a sure path to misery.

Griffin, have you just recently made this adjustment? If not, what were the key actions (in your opinion) that lead to you making this adjustment? I’m wondering how your practice of the Stoic exercises compares to your previous experience and how your practice influences your current day-to-day life.

Humbling myself. Coming to the realization that I am not the center of the universe, just a little piece in it. It sounds silly, but that was the big paradigm shift. Going out in the morning or taking walks in the evening and looking at the stars and planets and realizing how big it all is really “put me in my place” so to speak. Understanding that it is impossible for me to be in complete control of so many things.

I was not a pleasant person to be around before, always pissed off or looking for something to piss me off. Nowadays, I smile and laugh a lot. I am generally happy all the time. Things that would have sent me into a screaming fit (which I think comes from our perceived impotence in the situation), now may get a “good grief.”

I am so glad I found Stoicism when I did.

I do not subscribe to the idea that one should “never complain and never explain,” as I believe this is an idea derived from an age old, fundamental misunderstanding of Stoic philosophy, absorbed for the use of certain classes of people. Certainly, you do not want to go through life rationalizing your behavior to everyone, and it makes no sense to go through life complaining about everything to everyone. But wisdom, in great part, is about learning and seeking out balance in your day-to-day life. There are many times when complaining and explaining are valid, rational behaviors, when conducted in a rational manner. To go one step further, even anger, when expressed in an reasonable situation and in a rational manner, which I believe is possible, is appropriate. All of these circumstances apply, generally, to external matters, things “outside of our control,” things that we apply our energies to, to exert some control over, that we would prefer to have happen in a certain way. External circumstances we engage with to seek a certain outcome.
Or, otherwise, chose not to. Perhaps because we were raised to not complain and not explain. Or perhaps because we have grown into a state of inhibition for any number of reasons. Some of us also grow into a state of exhibition for any number of reasons. We have to examine ourselves, examine our motives before we chose to act or chose not to, and seek to determine why we make the choice, because that itself is a source of our virtue and the balance in our lives: how we make the choice, the basis upon which we make the choice. Do we chose out of virtue and rationality, out of personal habit, or based upon some conditioning from outside sources, or even some neurosis of which we may be fully unaware?

This will more than likely be my final comment. Public journaling does seem rather pointless and I am not here to post Letters to the Editor. However, I would like to conclude, for whatever purpose it serves, the saga in regard to the issue at hand (matters under our control or not) as it relates to the circumstance that occurred the other day. And with the question as to when does analysis become either rationalization or self-torture?
I have my anger controlled now to a point where, usually, a simple, interior, expletive burst and it is over, something like the release of a shock of static electricity. Is that enough? Most of the time, yes. All of the time, no. So, the overall answer has to be “no.” Perhaps that means at some point in the future I will reach a state where all of my anger will be released in that static-like shock moment. Maybe then I will be able to contemplate going further, if there is a further. Maybe there is a point at which I can see the anger coming (so they tell me) and prevent it from even occurring, and thus eliminate the static build-up, as it were. I’ve actually come so far along that I can imagine that happening, but truly only imagine it. I can at least imagine it, though, and that is something miraculous.
In the aftermath of that morning’s Facebook failure—and I will use that word, although I am now uncertain it was a failure—the page administrator finally came to and, in a brief post took both sides, and chastised both sides, as well as those of us who attempted to moderate in his stead. Then he deleted the post. All in all, a job well undone, I am certain, from his point of view.
I had already begun the process, as my previous post reveals, of trying to analyze what my position was in regard to controlling myself in attempting to control this situation and further question my role not merely in regard to this circumstance but in regard to my habits in similar circumstances. Not only do I attempt to engage with people in such situations (and I have a certain analogy that I would like to use in a moment, if I may) but I generally have a habit of speaking my mind. I used to do so often merely out of anger, but not always and, over time less and less, but still speaking my mind, for what I hoped were decent and just causes in a reasonable manner. When you speak your mind inevitably you will make some people upset. I have to admit I have always had some difficulty anticipating this reaction. It is, I believe, not a lack of empathy, but it may very well be a lack of foresight, or even downright stupidity, both of which I easily admit to.
As I gathered my thoughts about the FB situation I understood it simply as a matter of seeing people taking their pants off in public and attempting to warn them of the consequences (and again I was not the only one doing so). Then, seeing they had accomplished doing this, attempting to notify the people passing by what they might encounter if they happened to notice these naked people. I didn’t see this as being in any way controlling (in the negative sense) or political or moralistic. I wasn’t trying to stop the stripping or the staring. I was only warning as any good citizen might do on a public street. So, in the end, even though some people complained about what I did, as if I had been behaving in all those negative ways, I don’t feel that I did anything wrong. Even though I seem to have accomplished less than nothing, I don’t think I did anything wrong.
So, have I merely rationalized in analyzing this situation, now, or was I correct initially in hitting myself over the head repeatedly for attempting to get involved in the first place?
I was raised and acculturated in New York City, but now live in the American South. For example, from the time I was four years old, I was taught that, if anyone “looks at you funny,” you were to punch them hard in the face, then ask them what their “problem” was while you stared down at them on the ground. I do not behave that way any longer. I would not survive. Anyone familiar with the work of Flannery O’Connor may use her work, as I do, to bolster the opinion of things I am about to share. If I were in New York and saw someone, even a stranger, with their fly unzipped I would be considered terribly rude to let that pass and not say something. Here, in the South, quite the opposite is true, even if that someone were a friend (only a very close friend or a relative is considered close enough to bring something so sensitive to someone’s attention down here; you have to play something like a game of “telephone” to deliver the message, if you are lucky). I bring to the South my New York style and it often grates, but I still maintain that it is, at times—as when someone’s fly is unzipped—correct, and that many Southerners, like O’Connor, for instance, would agree with me, wholeheartedly, at those times, at least.
Such, as they say, is life. This is not about my anger, even at those moments when it may raise my anger. It isn’t even, so much, about matters of “style,” not even the New York style. It is, I believe, about reasonable, rational behavior. It may be my conception of rational behavior, but it isn’t some conception I have pulled out of a hat. Or, for that matter, pulled out of someone else’s hat, unexamined. These are things I have taken the time to consider at length over many years, from every side I can imagine, and from many more I have been unable to imagine but, with the help of others, have had tossed in my direction, over and over again. And I haven’t finished. I will keep looking. And my opinions about behavior do alter slightly now and then. That is one thing I can count on as being inevitable. That and growth. And if someone can convince me that up is down or blue is red, I will believe them. Until then, reasonable reality as I know it, as I’ve understood it to be, will remain in place.
But, that question remains, and for the moment, at least, I do not possess the answer. Not for 100% certain.

“Are the Stoics right to say that only our own actions, in a nutshell, are truly under our control?” Yes, if you consider thoughts and attitudes actions. Of course, even our actions, thoughts, and attitudes are subject to limitations. I can throw a ball, but not beyond a distance limited by my strength. I can think through a math problem, limited by my memory’s capacity, and my positive attitude can be reversed i.e. by physical pain. I think the key is in focusing on what one can do, and calmly accept the limits of our actions.

What are the benefits of recalling what’s under your control and what isn’t in difficult situations? What would be the long-term consequences of blurring this distinction?

By really looking at what is in our control and what is not it is easier to keep hold of one’s values and limit ones errors and disappointments. I have trouble with the content of this lesson, the four negatives: fear, craving, pain, pleasure as contrasted to three virtues: wishing, caution and joy. Basically there is a dichotomy of attachment to outcomes wherein too much attachment is expressed by the negatives and moderate pluses ascribed to outcomes that are “preferable” as we have been saying. Safe and warm is preferable to risk and chill and to be sought with reasonable effort. So also should we seek the benefit of all and good harmony with Nature and our neighbors. However, the latter is sometimes just what shows how our Stoic garment might be fraying. I am having trouble with the strong reaction I have to my neighbors who continue to smoke despite a new policy banning here on our housing property. When I forget what is in my control I am in more discomfort or pain and am more likely to be critical of their behavior which is really way out of my control. When I remember myself, I am more at peace and can keep working on improving the one person I can, me.

Are the Stoics right to say that only our own actions, in a nutshell, are truly under our control?

Yes, basically we can only control ourselves and that includes our attitudes and actions. Controlling one’s thoughts is not possible but challenging one’s attitudes and judgments is possible. I began work on myself to improve this several years ago and have been making some progress since then. It really has been a case of changing my “opinions about the things” [Epictetus, Handbook, Ch.5] that works best to increase my equanimity. Then there is the work to slow down and change some of my more automatic reactions to events or people. This takes time and some consistent attention. This course seems to lead in this very direction.

I too struggled a little with the notion of the four negative and three positive “passions”, perhaps a translation issue as the presenter noted. Or perhaps the terms are being used in a technical Stoic sense. There does seem to be a kind of spectrum rather than a dichotomy between terms like fear/caution, pleasure/joy, craving/wishing and the degree & quality of pain. Your (tedpome) notion of an “attachment spectrum” also helps make some sense of the categorisation of these “passions” as health or unhealthy.

With regard to whether or not only our own actions are under our control, I would suggest two things:
First, our control over anything including our own actions is limited but to the degree that we do have some control, our actions certainly are more subject to our decisions than the actions of others.
Second, how we behave can influence the actions or the outcomes of the actions of others. For example, where I live in Australia there has recently been a political election. Our successful local (independent) candidate ran on a platform of, among other things, “being our best selves”. She did not use attack ads & trained her campaign staff to be respectful at all times. This approach was remarkably successful. Her principal opponent did use attack ads but they backfired in that most voters saw them as mean-spirited and an inaccurate depiction of her courteous & respectful opponent. She lost badly.

For me, the main benefit of clarifying what is under my control and what isn’t has been to narrow my scope to be more realistic. It makes me focus on what I can actually do instead of worrying about things I have no power over. I have the opportunity to work within the parameters I am capable of, and the rest is out of my hands. When I don’t try to take on this outlook, I’m more anxious and find myself in negative spirals of ineffectual worrying, which are unproductive and probably work against my actual goals–making the distinction has already been very helpful.

I do think the Stoics are correct about only our actions being in our control. My attitude and outlook are mine to shape, and the actual things I do are wholly my decisions, but once the action is taken the result is out of my hands. I can’t control how dominoes fall or the cards I’m dealt from the deck.

Unfortunately, I have not been following the lessons for this week with great attention, due to distractions at home. It seems that this week would’ve been the best time to apply this lesson, because of my excessive preoccupation with what was outside of my control. Therefore, I’ll try to apply it now, at least, since the matter still bothers me, but I see how I’ve been in error about my thoughts about it.

I had some struggles applying the lessons this week as well. It is much easier to be mindful on a good day than when life abounds with stress and challenges, that’s for sure. But I think that even being aware in hindsight about how much time we’ve spent being preoccupied with things we have no power over is helpful for the future. Even if I get carried away with worrying for a while, when the realization pops back into my head that I just need to focus on what is under my control and my own actions, it instantly relieves at least some of the anxiety for me. I hope things at home take a turn for the better for you!

The benefit of distinguishing between what’s under our control and what’s not is a greater equanimity in response to life’s circumstances and also a greater motivation to change what can be changed. When the distinction is blurred, a person can seem to be tossed around on the ocean of other people’s opinions and actions.
It is right to say we can only change ourselves but also we are social creatures so our behaviour can to some extent influence others’ for good or ill.

This week we began a remodeling project on our home. It’s proving to be an excellent situation in which to remember what is and is not under my control, and I’m finding that the exercises of these 3 weeks are extremely beneficial. Although there’s much physical disruption and disruption in our normal schedules, everyone is relatively calm and the project is going well.

Keeping a tally of negative thoughts is quite helpful, also the leaves on a stream exercise.

The long term consequences of blurring the distinction between under or not under my control is, for me, well illustrated by previous stressful events in my life. This is a vast improvement.

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