If you can’t do anything about it, why are you worrying about it?

[This is part one of a series reevaluating some propositions that I perceived as crucial and important in my early thirties.]

Proposition: I can­not con­trol peo­ple or sit­u­a­tions, only my responses and reac­tions to them. I have noth­ing to lever­age for my own hap­pi­ness except my own attitude.

Since writing the above paragraph in 2010, the pursuit of distinguishing between what is inside and outside of my control and has become something of a personal anchor in life. Reading the extant writings of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and others over the past eight years has doubtlessly influenced this journey in significant ways. I am intrigued by no end with this broader philosophical tradition.

Today, the mantra for me goes like this: There are only two kinds of problems in the world — problems I can’t do anything about and problems I can do something about. Neither category of problem deserves anxious energy. If I make a list of all the things I can’t control in the world, I have a list of things about which my worry will have zero effect. If I make another list of things I can change in the world, worrying about them only detracts energy from doing something about them. The more things I have listed in these columns, the more things I don’t have to worry about.

On the list of things I can’t control are the names of everyone I know. I still think the most liberating realization in the world for me has been realizing that I cannot direct or manage the thoughts, feelings, and decisions of others. Herein is freedom from the curse of trying to be a hero. (As Dietrich Bonhoeffer surmised: a community is only as robust as its members are untangled from one another’s expectations of community itself.)

The proposition that “I can­not con­trol peo­ple or sit­u­a­tions, only my responses and reac­tions to them,” continues to be a cornerstone conviction.

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