Friday, July 26, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 4.10 - What should we despise and what should we especially value?

What if?

That is a game so many of us play.  It's a good game to play, if you play it correctly.  But played badly, the game introduces so many psychological problems.

What kinds of "what-if's" roll around in your head?  I'll rattle off some that I've encountered in my own head and other people's heads.

What if ...
  • my house floods
  • I lose my job
  • I injure my knee terribly
  • my daughter gets kidnapped while on an overseas trip
  • my wife dies
  • my parents hate my lifestyle
  • my neighbors and co-workers disagree with my political opinions
  • another nation launches a nuclear missile onto my city
  • the earth gets hit by an asteroid
  • global warming were real or if were a hoax
  • I fail to budget my finances well
  • my identity were stolen
  • I don't have enough money to retire
  • the company I work for goes out of business
  • robotics and automation makes my career and job irrelevant
As you read this list, you may even feel the anxiety bubble up within yourself.  If so, identify it; acknowledge it.  If you can't mentally do this, then perhaps come up with a creative way to acknowledge it ... such as write the worry or worries on a whiteboard, and then stand on the other side of the room and look at them objectively.  Maybe pretend a friend of yours has these worries.  Regardless, figure out a way to recognize these anxieties.  This is the first step to dealing with it; this shows you are concerned about your own mental well-being.  Epictetus would even "congratulate [you] for having put aside the things that other people get exercised about, and their fears" and that you, on the other hand are willing to "concentrate on [your] own business in the area where [your] true self lies." (v. 5, p. 266)

Next, you need to determine if these things are absolutely within your control or not.  As Epictetus notes, "it is with regard to external things that all people fall into difficulty, fall into bewilderment.  'What shall I do?  How will it be?  How will it turn out?  I only hope this, or that, doesn't happen to me.'  All of these are expressions of people who are preoccupied with things that lie outside the sphere of choice."  (v. 1-2, p. 265)

Next, you need to change your thinking; perform some self-help coaching.  So tell yourself to "never desire anything that is not your own, and never seek to avoid anything that is not within your power.  Otherwise you're bound to fail in your desires, and bound to fall into what you want to avoid." (v. 6, p. 266)

Once you go through this thought process, you should realize there is no "room left for the questions 'How will it be?' and 'How will it turn out?' and 'I only hope that this or that doesn't happen to me.'" (v. 7, p. 266).

You might be thinking that Epictetus is advocating not planning for anything.  I don't think that is the case.  I think we can tackle the "what-if" questions, but we cannot turn our peace of mind / equanimity wholly over to things outside our control.  I think it is a spectrum. A lot of people allow their minds to go to the "what-if" questions and they worry endlessly about these things.  In a sense, they are like little hamsters running on a wheel and never going anywhere.  While other people decide to control their desires and aversions, knowing full well that much of this is out of our control.

So, go ahead and think about the "what-ifs" and make a plan to address risk (or maximize gain).  But don't let any of this stuff cause any fear and anxiety in your life.  Instead, use a "reserve clause" and tell yourself you intend to address the risks and gains in the "what-ifs" knowing full well that things may not work out as you intend.  And if they don't work out, then you won't be disturbed by them, but rather you will use your ability to act virtuously as needed.

Epictetus discusses Hercules.  He didn't even bother with the "what-ifs."  He just went out and lived life.  He never said, "'How can I prevent a huge lion from coming my way, or a huge boar, or a savage man?'" (v. 10, p. 266)

And like Hercules, you should not worry about death.  We will all die and we most likely will not have the choice in how we die.  But we do have a choice in our attitude at the time of death.  You can die while "carrying out some deed worthy of a human being, something beneficent, something that serves the common good, something noble." (v. 12, p. 266)  And if you can't be doing that, then you should focus on "putting [yourself] right, striving to perfect the faculty that deal with impressions, and labouring to achieve peace of mind, while yet fulfilling [your] social duties." (v. 13, p. 266-267)

Later on in the chapter, Epictetus notes that death is our ultimate harbor - we will all make port there!  "As a consequence, nothing that happens to us in life is truly difficult.  You can leave the house whenever you want and no longer be troubled by the smoke." (v. 27, p. 268)

The fruits of this mental work will be "freedom from passion, and freedom from disturbance, and to sleep soundly when you sleep, and to be fully awake when you're awake, to be afraid of nothing, and anxious about nothing." (v. 22, p. 267)

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