Most of us want to grow as individuals, to be better today than we were yesterday. But if we’re honest, we fall short too often.
We need a plan. And Epictetus has one.
He says we must focus on three things:
- Our desires (including what we wish to avoid);
- Our motivations to act or not act (and whether we’re organized or careless);
- And what we assent to, including whether that assent is based on reason and reality, or if our judgments are hasty and based on false beliefs.
But as Mick Jagger famously put, you can’t always get what you want. When our desires are frustrated it’s easy to get upset and act irrationally. And then we fall into undesirable situations. That is, we unwittingly assent to things we’d rather avoid.
We can go too far in the other direction, though, becoming numb and detached. Epictetus warns against being “unfeeling like a statue.” This advice contradicts the stereotype that Stoics are emotionless – but the stereotype is wrong. Instead, he reminds us that we are social creatures and we should honor our natural desire to connect with others.
Life is like a banquet.
Epictetus says life is like a banquet. If something we want is offered to us, accept it – but don’t be greedy. If we don’t want it then decline it. If something we want isn’t offered to us then let it go.
We must remember that the entire world is interconnected. Virtue increases connection, but beliefs and actions that create disconnection can lead us to behave destructively. And anger (wanting to strike out against someone) and wanting to prove superior status through attachment to external things like money and power (which we can never really control anyway), all lead to disconnection.
Gimme three steps, mister.
The first step is to be honest with ourselves about what we truly desire, and what we wish to avoid. Otherwise, we’ll go about things in a backhanded way and end up where we don’t want to be.
The second step is to understand what’s up to us and what’s not up to us. Or put another way, what belongs to us and what does not belong to us.
The only things that are up to us are our values, motivations, and choices. Other people, events, and so on don’t belong to us. So if we desire something we must be willing to let go of it because realistically we know it might not come our way.
Finally, consistency is important – take note of moments when we’re not at our best and what lead up to it. Then we can be on guard in the future.