In book two of his Discourses, Epictetus says it’s a matter of knowing what to be confident about and what to be cautious about. And most of us get it backwards.
He says there’s no point in stressing over what might happen or what has happened because we can’t change the past and we don’t control the future.
But we should be cautious about things that are within our control – namely, our values, motivations, and choices. Yet, it’s far too easy to deceive ourselves about our selfish motivations.
Most of us, however, fear things that are not up to us. What if my flight is delayed? What if the stock market crashes?
But at the same time we can be overconfident, insisting we’re right and that our motivations are pure. Epictetus says this can lead to recklessness disguised as self-confidence.
To be deceived, then, or to act rashly, or to carry out some shameful act or harbor some shameful desire, we regard as being of no importance, provided only that we achieve our aim with regard to matters that lie outside the sphere of choice.
He reasons that outside events are neither good nor bad. But how we respond to them can be good or bad.
And when thinking about the best way to respond to these events we should second guess our true motivations. We must first make sure we’re not lying to ourselves about our true intentions. And we must make sure we’re not examining the situation with distorted thinking.
Epictetus even says we shouldn’t fear death. We’re all going to die one day anyway. Whether we lived a good life is what matters. But that can’t be decided on our deathbeds because the past is gone and there is no future.
We must decide to live a good life now.