“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 choice 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
One of the books I’ve been reading lately is Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot by VADM James Stockdale. He was shot down in Hanoi, Vietnam and taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese. He spent over seven years being tortured and subjected to unimaginable loneliness and terror. He shares the following on how he endured his capture:
“After ejection, I told myself, ‘I am leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus’ … As I ejected from that airplane was the understanding that a Stoic always kept separate files in his mind for (A) those things that are “up to him” and (B) those things that are not up to him… All in category B are ‘external,’ beyond my control, ultimately dooming me to fear and anxiety if I covet them. All in category A are up to me, within my power, within my will, and properly subjects for my total concern and involvement. They include my opinions, my aims, my aversions, my own grief, my own joy, my judgments, my attitude about what is going on, my own good, and my own evil.”
What are you going through today that gives you stress or anxiety? I challenge you to keep in mind what Epictetus and Stockdale experienced and lived. Put a barrier between the things that you have control over and those which you do not. Write them down – make a list of each – if you need to. It will be made clear to you what action(s) you need to do to resolve those things that YOU have power to affect and influence. Ignore the rest.
It is this last part that is the hardest… which is, in part, why I recommend to write them down. I refer to my lists often, especially I feel stress or anxiety and need some perspective. Seeing it on paper – something tangible – is sometimes just what we need to focus and seize what is in OUR control.
The next step is DOING (i.e. action).