There are two categories of problems:
Problems you can do something about.
Problems you can not do anything about.
If you can do something about the problem, then there is no need to be anxious about it. You know that you can exert some degree of influence on the outcome. What you actually need to do is sit down and make a list of the actions you need to do in order to achieve the result you desire, or at least do whatever is in your power to move the needle a little closer in the right direction. And then you just need to do those things. There’s no point in stressing out over this. Your ‘problem’ is not really a problem at all: it is just a process you need to sort out, execute, and perhaps reiterate.
If you can not do anything about the problem, then there is equally no point to being anxious about it. If you can not address the problem, then you must conclude that your stress and anxiety will have equally no bearing or influence on the outcome either. There is no point in expending emotional energy towards a problem for which such effort is guaranteed to have zero effect.
Logically, then, should we not conclude that we are often quite irrational in our stress? When we are anxious we are either a) needlessly expending energy that we could employ to resolve the issue, or b) needlessly expending energy to change something that we do not possess the ability to change in the first place.
Of course, I did not invent this argument. No, the kernel of this little gem goes back at least as far as Epictetus (circa 55-135 CE), the Greek Stoic, and it has correlates in even older Eastern traditions of thought as well. But I find Epictetus’ analysis particularly compelling for his sheer, thoroughgoing rationality.
For Epictetus, the paramount purpose of philosophy itself is to teach us how to be indifferent towards situations that are beyond our control (Discourses I.29.24). Reason, he says, demostrates that worry is unreasonable.
As Epictetus sees it, everything belongs in one of two categories: it either happens in our mind (internally) or it happens somewhere ‘out there’ in the world (externally). A lot of externals are beyond our control, but the internal state of our mind is ours alone to order. Therefore, if events, people, situations, or circumstances affect our emotional or psychological wellbeing, it is only because we allow them to do so. There is no reason for anything ‘out there’ to make you upset unless you first agree to bring it ‘inside’ yourself.
Epictetus then asks, in essence, “Why do you surrender your mind – the one thing you can actually control in the world – to every new impulse that comes along? Who is in control of you – you or your circumstances?”
Many of us carry around a disgruntled laundry list of things we do not like about the world: family members aggravate us, foreigners threaten us, the nattering of office politics is draining, the neighbours are too loud, and the coffee is too cold. Our gut reaction is to assume that all these negative factors are the “authors of the evil in our lives” (I.11.37). But Epictetus reminds us that they are all externals. They are all outside of our minds. They themselves do not upset us – they are just there – we only upset ourselves by how we judge them.
Epictetus’ philosophy boils down to a simple proposition: you cannot control anything, save for how you choose to respond to the world. Your family, neighbourhood, market portfolio, and coworkers – they are obviously and objectively not under the dictatorial thumb of your whims and desires. But if your emotional wellbeing becomes tied to these externals, you are in for a wild ride. When you surrender control of your own mind and allow it to be manipulated by an ever-changing world of factors and variables you cannot control, you yourself are no longer in charge of you (I.4.19, 23; I.29.39-40).
The more stubbornly we try to control externals, the more we are beholden to them. The harder we try to whip the world into submission, the stronger its stranglehold over our mind. When our emotional wellbeing is dictated by the state of our circumstances, we are nothing more than reactionary mirrors of the world. We have, in effect, surrendered our minds.
If you can change it, it doesn’t deserve your worry.
If you can’t change it, it doesn’t deserve your worry.
If you worry about it anyway, you are simply inviting it to tyrannize and traumatize you, indefinitely.
Exercising this meticulous self-control is a lifelong enterprise, an endless journey. It requires a habit of not only contemplating events as they happen, but also reflecting on our responses to them as they occur. It means thinking about our thinking. At any given moment, the world might interrupt you with some great calamity or someone might riffle your equilibrium, which means being on constant guard – realizing that your own worst enemy is yourself lying in ambush. (Enchiridion 48) We are a liability to ourselves, always on the verge of surrendering control of our minds to things we cannot control.
Epictetus implores us to embark on a rigorous program of mental self-discipline – a diligent study of ourselves so that we might live “free and unenslaved” by externals (I.25.31). By learning to control our minds, he instructs, we can learn to accept every situation and circumstance for what it is.
The only thing we can control is how we react.
And there are only two kinds of problems in the world.
(There are two caveats that I wish to add in closing. First: when you are being stalked by a tiger, chased by an assailant, or uncertain about the source of your next meal, Epictetus does not seem to advocate curling up and just accepting what life deals you. Your hypothalamus and adrenal gland are there for good reasons. In emergencies, stress and anxiety are absolute imperatives, and are arguably far more useful than rationality could ever be in the moment. My hope with this article is not to stigmatize stress and anxiety, but to consider where they are most appropriate, assuming that the ‘problem’ at hand is a situation which allows for such leisurely review. Stress and anxiety are themselves not the problem, nor are they even necessarily ‘bad things’ at all. We are culture-bound creatures: giving neurobiological states ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ values is inherently a subjective game. Secondly: Let us keep in mind that the brain is a physical organ, and as such it is just as susceptible to injury, disease, and fracture as the rest of our cellular composition. For some people, stress and anxiety are simply not states that can be analyzed and rationalized with the prefrontal cortex. Please do not hear me proposing that a simple thought experiment like this can override broader, systemic biological or chemical conditions. In other words: I am not necessarily proposing Epictetus as a clinical remedy.)