I am sure that most people have read or know of the Serenity Prayer. The prayer speaks to a key element for our understanding that I believe is important if we are to navigate this life while trying to maintain some sense of sanity. That key element forms the foundation of Stoic philosophy, and is addressed throughout the wisdom literature of Judeo-Christian thought. If we are to be wise we must possess some understanding of what is and what is not in our control. Such understanding helps us act on the former while letting go of the latter. Such understanding is not solidified as such until we act on it. The Stoics distinguished between externals and internals. They stated over and over in their writings that we have little to no control over externals. The chaos that life throws at us via natural catastrophes, social and political upheavals, and the pain individuals close to us bring into our lives is beyond our control. Although we would prefer that these things would not occur and happen to us, we cannot escape the fact that they do.
According to the Stoics, what we have under our control is our reactions to these events when they happen. We can let such events upset us, bury us in depression, and even disrupt and destroy our lives. To the contrary we can by what the Stoics call reasoned choice respond to these events in ways that we encounter them, know their impact, then let them go and choose to move on with our lives. The Stoics have often been misunderstood in their position here. Reasoned choice doesn’t mean that events in life are not painful, catastrophic, and life altering. It doesn’t mean that we don’t get angry, cry, and feel remorse or regret. It does mean, however, that we do not let these emotions bury us. The Stoic is not Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame. Life is a struggle, and through the pains of living we learn to let go of what we can’t control. To continue to hold on to what we can’t control leads to further agony, pain, and loss. The Stoics referred to what lies within our abilities to respond as our circle of control.
Reasoned choice is what the Stoics call mind. Mind is one of the key themes that I want to explore over the next few years while I remain on this earth. I have spoken of these various themes on this blog here and here. Stoicism is one form or way of thinking about mind. Given my faith as a Christian, I will add my spin on what the Stoics have to say.
Stoicism and Mind
In his Discourses, Epictetus informs us that we have a limited circle of control. If we seek to control all that lies outside that circle, we are trying to face life and its vicissitudes with abilities we simply do not possess. The ability we do possess is to control our reasoned choice. Stoicism tells us the one thing that lies in our circle of control is our mind. When you get right down to it, there’s a truckload of life experiences that lie outside our control while perhaps there’s a thimble full of effort that lies in our control. That doesn’t mean that thimble full of wisdom is not important. It’s very important that we sharpen our skills in the use of our mind, particularly when it comes to understanding our circle of control. In terms of our circle, even more than this is important for us to understand. While we have the ability to make choices, we do not possess the control to know where our choices begin and how they end. The consequences of our choices are part of the fallout of living in this world with all its beauty and all its pain. We hopefully seek to make the wisest choices we can, but we also fall short of that most of the time. Even when we do make wise choices, we have no control over where they lead. Epictetus calls us to live, “. . . giving up all outside of your sphere of choice, regarding nothing else as our possession, surrendering all else to God and Fortune.”
Fatalism Is Not Allowed on These Premises
Talking about the reality that we as human beings have an extremely limited circle of control might lead people to interpret Stoicism as fatalistic. Nothing could be further from the truth. An accurate understanding of our place in the world is the foundation of our ability to live wisely. Such understanding is a source of strength, stability, and wise action. It’s our way of not seeking to do and expecting more in life than we should. From a Christian perspective, the Scriptures speak to much of what the Stoics address, adding from my perspective more depth and comfort. The wisdom literature and the New Testament gospels appeal to the same understanding of surrendering to God. (I’m not sure who Fortune is 🙂 ). We have far reaching promises for a right relationship with God, but what the Bible does not promise us is that in this life we will get all that we expect and hope for. The moral will of God is given to us. Beyond that we do not know our paths. We do know that our paths are in God’s hands. I truly believe, although I don’t like it very much, that we have little in life that is under our control. I would even say to the Stoics, I don’t even have control over my mind the way they tend to proffer. So it behooves us to work as efficient as we can with what is in our control. From a Christian perspective, I need added power to even accomplish that feat. Such power is promised us. What is not promised is that life will give me all that I want. Rather than fatalism, one can take comfort in knowing what is under one’s control and what is not, thereby living accordingly.
There’s a lot of discussion in the counseling field regarding what leads clients to seek out counseling. Many times when people think of psychotherapy, they immediately think of mental illness, hospital wards, medication, and things like psychoses and debilitating neuroses. Although such cases make up many experiences for some therapists, numerous people enter counseling who would not be considered mentally ill or diagnosable. They simply are dealing with the struggles that life brings their way. Meaning, purpose, interpersonal relationships, and questions around identity drive people into counseling. One experience I see over and over again is people seeking to deal with things they can’t control, but not wanting to let go of the hope that they can find a way to control them. Why wouldn’t this be a common experience in counseling? It’s a common experience in life. It’s a common experience I face in my life everyday. Whether it’s dwelling on the past, or painting some magnanimous picture for the future I would like to see happen, I find that I’m losing focus on the present moment and not dealing in that small realm with which I can actually deal. Viktor Frankl came to grips with the reality of his limited circle of control when the Nazis ushered him into the concentration camps. In his work, Man’s Search for Meaning, he stated that the powers that exist could take everything away from him except one thing – his response to his circumstances.
I believe strongly that coming to grips what our circle of control is a constant battle that is the human condition.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/January 14, 2019