Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.
Within our control are our own opinions, aspirations, desires, and the things that repel us. These areas are quite rightly our concern, because they are directly subject to our influence. We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives.
Outside our control, however, are such things as what kind of body we have, whether we’re born into wealth or strike it rich, how we are regarded by others, and our status in society. We must remember that those things are externals and are therefore not our concern. Trying to control or to change what we cannot only results in torment.
Thus begins the manual of Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher who lived from A.D. 55 to A.D. 135 and who taught in Rome until A.D. 94 when Emperor Domitian banished philosphers from the city. Epictetus then founded a school of philosphy whose students included Marcus Aurelius, author of The Meditations.
In this short book The Art of Living: The Classic Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness, author Sharon Lebell distills from the teachings of Epictetus 93 pithy lessons, all related to advice concerning living a happy, purposeful life. These lessons are reminiscent of the Buddha’s teachings, with a focus more on practice than theory, and more on mastering your inner being than outer circumstances. One of the things I struggle with the most is letting go of people and things I love. Epictetus’ following excerpt deals with exactly this in “Care for What You Happen to Have”:
Nothing can truly be taken from us. There is nothing to lose. Inner peace begins when we stop saying of things, “I have lost it” and instead say, “It has been returned to where it came from.” Have your children died? They are returned to where they came from. Has your mate died? Your mate is returned to where he or she came from. Have your possessions and property been taken from you? They too have been returned to where they came from.
Perhaps you are vexed because a bad person took your belongings. But why should it be any concern of yours who gives your things back to the world that gave them to you?
The important thing is to take great care with what you have while the world lets you have it, just as a traveler takes care of a room at an inn.
Thank you Mark Vestrich for this wonderful book!