Musings on Epictetus

Epictetus

I was re-introduced to Epictetus by John Stephure (co-founder of Wellspring Calgary) with the gift of a small book called The Art of Living by Sharon Lebell. I had known about the Stoics and Epictetus from University Philosophy classes, where they played a minor role, although they intrigued me.

“Stoicism’ was a philosophy that flourished for some 400 years in Ancient Greece and Rome, gaining widespread support among all classes of society. It had one overwhelming and highly practical ambition: to teach people how to be calm and brave in the face of overwhelming anxiety and pain.

We still honour this school whenever we call someone ‘stoic’ or plain ‘philosophical’ when fate turns against them: when they lose their keys, are humiliated at work, rejected in love, or disgraced in society. Of all philosophies, Stoicism remains perhaps the most immediately relevant and useful for our uncertain and panicky times.” From The School of Life website.

If you were to read the Stoics, they take a hard line on almost everything, and even though I relate to the spirit of what they say, you know me by now and can assume that I take the soft line and work within the spirit of the recommendations.

Epictetus is one of my favourite Stoics. I suppose it comes from the fact that he was born a slave and yet ended up being an influential philosopher in Ancient Rome. And also because he was interested in ordinary people, not just the Academy of Philosophers.

Like all stoics, he was concerned with the fundamentals of life, much like Dr. Shoma Morita and Dr. Itami with his Meaningful Life Therapy and much of what we talk about here. I discovered that Morita Therapy and Viktor Frankl’s Logo Therapy had some influence from the Stoics.

A few fundamental principles of Stoicism, which are compatible with my work, are:

“Some things are under your control, and other things are not under your control.”

(I say, What’s controllable and what’s not?) And then we put our efforts into the things that we can do something about. Sometimes, the effort to influence or mitigate can change the outcome. Sometimes, we have to face the facts of what we don’t like and move on. This is where I regularly speak of Arugamama –a radical acceptance. With things as they are now, what can I do?

“See things for what they are” –

 (I say Facts as Facts”)

“Don’t depend on the admiration of others.”

(Effort is good fortune) at a time when so much of life is driven by others, it is vital that we choose to approve of ourselves without striving to be approved by others. And beyond that, as much as we wish it were otherwise, results aren’t 100% controllable by us. If you have lived long enough, you have experienced it. This is not an excuse for being irresponsible, but a caution to recognize that our best efforts are what we can control and are ultimately what counts.

When Brene Brown gave her first Ted Talk, which became one of the most-watched Ted Talks ever, she was shocked by one thing. The amount of hate mail she received publicly.

She talks about how it left her reeling and fearful of ever doing another talk again. But as you know, she regrouped and accepted that she could do nothing about the haters. She had to do what she saw as important and recognize that, like all humans, she would blunder, but she still needed to do what she thought was hers to do. Whether people liked it or not was not in her direct control. So that outcome wasn’t how she judged herself.

She quotes Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Anxiety (co-existing with anxiety, uncertainty, and fear)

Anything can happen at any time to anyone. Good-hearted people often tell us that everything will be ok – people want to cheer us up when we’re mired in uncertainty, and they hasten to reassure us.

“But the Stoics bitterly opposed such a strategy because they believed that anxiety flourishes in the gap between what we fear might and what we hope could happen. Their suggestion was to follow the thread of the worst possible outcome through to the end and figure out how you would handle it should this come to pass.”

My strategy is more about recognizing that anxiety is natural. That is to be expected. And to learn that we can do things in the here and now while anxious. (doesn’t mean it is easy)Take the time I realized I had prepared for the wrong topic for my weekly webinar. That was anxiety-producing five minutes before the start. And I needed to address the elephant in the room and move on. You learn that you can still respond and offer something useful while being anxious. Mind you, my throat was a bit raspy, and other signs of anxiety were present, yet I made my way through, thanks also to the generosity of the participants. That is the practice.

The practice is when we are anxious, be anxious, and do things anyway. It doesn’t mean we don’t prepare. Of course, we do our part.  Then we show up and be the best anxious person delivering the talk we can be. We don’t have to fix our anxiety first in order to do things, and that is freedom.

“Conform your expectations to reality.”

Or it’s in the nature of fire to burn. It is a reminder about being realistic about life and other people.

If your friend is always late, why are you surprised that he or she is late this time? If your sister usually sees the worst side of the equation, why be surprised when she responds in exactly that way today?

We get angry and disappointed with others– especially with our partners, sometimes our children or parents. Often with our politicians. But here’s the facts. Of course, our loved ones will disappoint us, naturally our colleagues will fail us, invariably our friends will hurt us even inadvertently. And we, too, will cause trouble to them.

Nothing of this should be a surprise. It may make us sad or disappointed, but this is also life. We all make mistakes. We are all wrong from time to time. It doesn’t mean passivity. It means being realistic, developing tolerance, fixing, and doing what we can to make things work out when possible. And when that can’t be done to let it go. To not add piggyback suffering to our life.

“Never suppress a generous impulse.”

(an Epictetus maxim and a Dalai Lama maxim)

Or when queried about death, which is inevitable for all, Epictetus says:

“I have to die. If it is now, well then, I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.”

In other words, “To make the best of what is in our power and take the rest as it occurs.” Or my maxim, sing while there is voice left.

Notes

1:) It was a gift to say YES to an unexpected invitation to spend a restful weekend on a beautiful lake.

2:) Today is the last day of January 2024. What lovely thing do you have planned for February? We don’t need to leave home to create meaningful and creative moments.

3:)Some days are harder than others. And yet… these last two lines from the Jane Hirschfield poem The Weighing spell it out.

“So few grains of happiness

measured against all the dark

and still, the scales balance.

The world asks of us

only the strength we have and we give it

Then it asks more, and we give it.”

4:) Photos are from Ottawa, Japan, and Vernon, BC, from 2007-2016

5:) You can’t imagine how much I appreciate your company. A thousand thank-you’s. With warm appreciation, Trudy

PS Next week, there may be a glitch with my post. A technical change had to be made by February 1st, and I, like others, made it, but I am always a little skeptical. So, if you don’t receive my post as usual, please check your spam and also let me know. Thank you!

 

 

 

10 replies
  1. Kevin Simpson
    Kevin Simpson says:

    Words to hold close! The “fundamentals of life”. “To not add piggyback suffering to our life.” and “sing while there is voice left.”

    Reading your blog is like going for a walk. I always get to the end in a better place!! Thank You again!

    Reply
    • T Boyle
      T Boyle says:

      Lovely to receive this kind and poetic note, Kevin. You do have a way with words and I appreciate them. Keep on “singing.” Kind regards, Trudy

      Reply
  2. Georgie Day
    Georgie Day says:

    Hi Trudy,
    After reading your blog this week, I was reminded of a little book that helped me stay on an even keel during stressful times when my confidence was tanked. “Feel the Fear and do it Anyway” by Susan Jeffers. Just the title has been helpful sometimes.
    Enjoy the day!
    Georgie

    Reply
    • T Boyle
      T Boyle says:

      So glad that you still get to have lunch.:-)) By the way, you reminded me about that Hirschfield poem.It is so so true, from my experience. Thanks dear Janice.Hope to see you soon, Trudy

      Reply

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