Don’t Sweat the Big Stuff

Whoever yields properly to Fate, is deemed
Wise among men, and knows the laws of heaven.

-- Euripides

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised people not to sweat the small stuff -- or even big stuff like death – things you can’t ultimately do much about anyway. His approach was based on the simple proposition that there are things in life you can control and others that you can’t, and it makes little sense to worry about the latter. “Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions,” he said. “Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.” Obviously, there are many fewer circumstances in life you can control than those you can’t. And if you would just learn to concentrate on the former, you would have a much easier time of it.

You might think a philosopher like Epictetus would have an easier time than the rest of us being philosophical about the vicissitudes of life, large or small. However, he wasn’t always a philosopher; in fact, he started out as a slave in the household of an officer in the imperial guard under the Roman Emperor Nero. Being a slave afforded him the opportunity to think deeply about the limits of human autonomy. So when Epictetus warned that you become a slave to any desire that depends on circumstances over which you have no control, be assured that he knew what he was talking about. He declared, “Whoever, then, would be free, let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which depends on others else he must necessarily be a slave.”

Refusing to be concerned about things over which you have no control won’t buy you immunity, of course. Stuff happens. Your dog dies. Someone else gets the promotion you had been angling for. A false rumor circulates that damages your reputation. The question is, what does any of that have to do with you? Not much, Epictetus would argue, unless you allow it to. “Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things,” he insisted. Stuff happens because God willed it, so who are we to wish otherwise? “If we wish for nothing but what God wills, we shall be truly free,” he said.

It is one thing, of course, if your dog dies and quite another to lose a spouse or, God forbid, a child – or so you might think. But Epictetus had other ideas: “If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live for ever, you are stupid; for you wish to be in control of things which you cannot, you wish for things that belong to others to be your own.” By “others” he presumably meant God. Echoing Job (“The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away...“), he advised, “Never say of anything, ‘I have lost it’; but, ‘I have returned it.’ Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned.”

And what about you? What happens when the time comes for you to return? We fear death because we are caught up in the appearance of things. But if death were so terrible, Epictetus said, it would have appeared so to Socrates. But it did not. During the penalty phase of his trial in Athens, Socrates had refused to beg for his life, arguing that death was at worst a dreamless sleep. Life, by contrast, was a bit of a dream, according to Epictetus, although he used a different metaphor. “Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such kind as the author pleases to make it,” he said. “If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another's.” And when your drama is ended, there is nothing left to do but to make a graceful exit. When the curtain falls, it is curtains for you.

Epictetus, Enchiridion; Discourses
Job 1:22

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