“Some things we can control, some we can’t. We can control our attitudes, opinions, goals and desires – choices of our own. We can’t control health, wealth, fame or power – things we can’t have by choosing them.” —Epictetus
Freedom begins with understanding what we control and we do not. Yet very few people even begin to consider this essential dichotomy.
Even in the complete absence of “administration” as Tocqueville observed in early 19th century America, no one was free who failed to understand Epictetus’s control dichotomy: some things are under our control, some are not.
Conversely, Viktor Frankl never lost his essential freedom even when a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. He never lost his freedom to choose his response. Frankl, and most of the survivors, clearly understood what was in their control and what was not.
Likewise, Admiral James Stockdale understood the dichotomy. He credits Stoicism with helping him survive seven and a half years in Hanoi Hilton. As he drifted to earth after ejecting from his jet, he said to himself, “I am leaving the modern world for Epictetus’s world.”
My dogs are upset.
Some neighbor had the temerity to walk down the street. The dogs don’t like that. My dogs haven’t come to grips with the things they can and cannot control. They want the world to work one way. It works another way before their eyes. So they yell at it.
How different are we from dogs?
Look at me. Page through this blog. How many times every week do I yell at the world for being different than the way I wish it to be?
Yesterday, I wrote a LinkedIn article on the subject of stoic persuasion. It asserts that understanding this dichotomy is the basis of influencing others. We cannot influence people when we’re trying to control them. The less we seek control over others, the more likely they are to follow.
It’s a paradox within a dichotomy.
You might not agree with Epictetus and me. You might have a formula for ethically controlling other people to do your bidding. You might have a super power that lets you control others' minds and manipulate their wills.
It took me a while, but I finally realized have no such power. I cannot control those things that are not in my control.
And the only things in my control are my actions, my beliefs, my likes and dislikes.
One of those beliefs is that influence begins with understanding what we control and what we don’t.
So I’m going to try to practice that belief. Practice my belief so I can stop being a hypocrite. Maybe this is the path to true freedom.
I’m also adding a new category: Stoicism. More to follow, Deo volente.