Last week, for the second week in a row, I spent an hour on the phone with a dear friend — Vince. We had got to know each other years ago, because of a fortuitous meeting with Nick at a petrol station which became a mutual friend of us both. Nick ran his own limousine chauffeur business. I had approached him, hoping that he may have a job for a friend whose business had just collapsed. He didn’t, but he gave me his number as he knew of some others who may. Events are strange because, in the end, it would be me who needed the contacts.
Vince had spent the hour talking and lamenting the situation at hand — his family’s wedding car business. Due to the lockdowns and pandemic of 20-21, the company has not been operational for the most part. It had been difficult as the state had been in and out of lockdowns, sometimes with only 6 hours’ notice. We spoke during the last quarter of 2021, and it didn’t look hopeful for the next wedding season either. He was spending his days on the phone with brides and grooms rearranging dates and rebooking cars, sometimes 4 and 5 times in a row, with no certainty that it would be the last time either.
As we closed the phone call, my friend jokingly said — “Thanks for this week’s therapy season”.
Whilst we had spent the time chatting about life and the current situation, the underlying emphasis from my side of the conversation can be best summed up by the following quote.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .”Epictetus
I had first run across this quote six years ago, thanks to the work of Ryan Holiday and Robert Greene. Holiday has written several books delving into the ancient philosophy of stoicism. Epictetus is one of the most well-known. Born around AD 50, he spent his youth as a slave where he had the permission of his wealthy enslaver to study Stoic philosophy. After the death of Nero, he obtained his freedom and would later set up a school of philosophy in Greece. One of his best-known students is Marcus Aurelius’ recognised as the last of the Great Roman Emperors.
The idea’s lying inside this quote came to me over many years of self-reflection and observing myself and others. When I first read it in The Daily Stoic, it summarised everything I had realised and has been a quote I come back to time and time again as a gentle reminder of where my energy and life is best spent.
One of the benefits of being ill — if there can be such a thing — is that there is time to reflect and delve into our inner selves, to explore potential understandings and solutions for the way ahead. I was fortunate to have over six years of life to conduct those observations, a journey that, of course, continues. Most days, I woke up distressed about how little I knew and understood. During those years, ideas would bubble to the surface — no doubt impacted by the many books, audio programs and live events I had attended, or perhaps absorbed from the zeitgeist. Yet they seem to come from within – a self-discovery of a truth, and because they came from within, they were mine to own and had more personal influence. Of course, as I read or reread books, they would seem to resonate much more profoundly as I realised how smart the authors had become.
Two great movies that epitomise the words of Epictetus are Castaway with Tom Hanks and Gladiator with Russel Crowe. It is no coincidence that the Roman Emperor and Philosopher featured is the great student of the works of Epictetus — Marcus Aurelius. Whose own thoughts have come down to us in his journal — Meditations. I often go back and enjoy them again and again, especially when things are a little challenging. They remind me to put energy where it can make a difference. To do what I can do and not complain or avoid them either.
It is not always easy to focus on what we can control, mainly if what we can control seems so much less than those around us. Opportunities don’t seem to come our way, or we see others lives blooming and blossoming in ways that seem wonderful to us — and yet we wonder when it is our turn?
For each of us, the areas of control will be different. Our genetic makeup, the events and the surrounding culture will create opportunities for some and limitations for others. Discouragement can readily raise its timeless emotions, yet it is no benefit to a forward momentum in life. And these areas of control will ebb and flow with life events. By focusing on the circumstances, we can control, we minimise the waste of energy and maximise any likelihood of change.
In March 2020, when the world shut down in response to the pandemic, many friends and business colleagues would call me to discuss the events. And perhaps to have a friendly voice. It isn’t easy when you are used to having considerable control over the circumstances of your life to be suddenly thrust into significantly less. But, so often, the calls were because they just wanted to do something.
After listening and chatting for a while with my friends, I would ask a couple of questions. Knowing that I too was battling the same emotions.
What can you do?
And do you have to do anything right now?
We can waste an excessive amount of energy going over and over the things that disturb us, worrying but in the end, it’s just a waste of energy. That activity can give us a sense of doing something but is doing nothing except increasing our anxiety. So by asking what you can do — it focuses the mind. The second question is equally essential, particularly in times of great unrest and change. We can become emotionally charged with all sorts of irrational fears and sometimes the best thing is to realise this and acknowledge that it may be best to do nothing until our emotions have settled down.
Today I sat down to write; a minor earthquake hit my city. It reminded me of how vulnerable we are when our foundations are affected.
This morning there was very little I could do. I quickly looked around and ascertained that nothing around me could fall and be a threat to life. So, I did all that could be done. I waited until it passed, to see how it could develop and then would deal with the aftermath. When the very foundations of all you have built and come to know are under threat, it is tough to be unemotional. But, it is a natural and perfectly reasonable response. We must realise this, let emotions rise and fall, and act when fear is no longer the driving action. We wait for the storm to pass or, at the very least, have some idea of its personality before making a move.
It is all too easy to get caught up with the group emotions, as Douglas Murray so aptly points out in his book “The Madness of Crowds.”
During the pandemic’s early stages, Australians found the crazy need to panic buy toilet paper and canned tomatoes. As I would read about this in the morning’s news of the day — I had to fight back the urge to rush out and get my share — just in case. It wasn’t easy. Yet here I was a person who rarely eats tomatoes, let alone stocks up on cans of them, and that month I had just received my regular box of 56 toilet rolls from “Who Gives A Crap”, so I was unlikely to run out in a hurry — yet I had to fight the emotions.
I am reminded of the opening lines of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If.”
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…”
By not focusing on the things we can control, we waste our lives. Of course, within the conditions, we control, there are also priorities — the critical thing is to see what they are — then act.
My friend with the wedding car hire business last year took massive action about what he could control. All the maintenance jobs, the tidying up of his workshops, the tasks that previously had been way down the list of priorities, he carried out; because he could — it was what he could do.
We cannot undo the choices and actions we have made in the past — but what we can do — we can control the things we act on today. First, forgive ourselves if need be and avoid the unwelcomed emotions of regret. Regret stifles action.
As Julia Roberts character, In “Pretty Woman” quips —
“It is easier to believe the bad stuff.”
Sometimes, it isn’t easy to ordinate our minds around what we can do and what actions we can take; that is why we admire people who do. We respect people who have courage under fire, the disabled, the quiet achievers, those who rise above their circumstances by acting on and where they can to change their lives.
I have noticed that our suffering is often caused by refusing to act where, when, and on what we can and declining to acknowledge the things we can’t change and fixate on them.
I have often found it helpful to list the things I cannot change in any situation and then list the things I can. I have discovered by acting on the things I can do; I do not stagnate. In addition, there is a chance that further opportunities could arise. It either builds or maintains my confidence, which in itself opens doors. We may not like the things we have control over, but by acting on them, we can make a better world for ourselves.
This quote changed my life because it reminds me to act on the things I have control over and not waste time on the uncontrollable. A simple few lines to summarise a foundational idea; It creates a habit — it builds a life.
Let us do what we can each day. Do not hesitate on the difficult task. Our lives and future selves will thank us.
Learn to love our fate and act within it.
Share with those you love — Till Next Time….
Resources & Further Reading.
The Art of Living – Epictetus – Sharon Lebell.
“If” – Rudyard Kipling
The Madness of Crowds. – Douglas Murray
Meditations – Marcus Aurelius a New Translation by Gregory Hays
The 50th Law. – Robert Greene & 50 Cent