Epictetus was a Greek stoic philosopher who influenced the likes of Marcus Aurelius and Emperor Hadrian. He’s thought of as one of the four main stoic philosophers along with with Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Zeno of Citium.
Throughout his life he overcame a great deal; he was born into slavery, became disabled after an enslaver deliberately broke his leg, and was banished from Rome. After overcoming all of this, he sought to teach others how to overcome life’s challenges and live a happy life.
Here’s three things I learn’t from him…
1. Tough Times Make Tough People
You become strong during difficult times.
So when trouble comes, think of yourself like a wrestler, when life, like a trainer has paired you with a tough opponent.
Just like the wrestler must wrestle his opponent to win, all of life’s challenges are there for us to wrestle with and overcome. There is no point complaining about the size and strength of your opponent; that’s not going to help you win. The same holds true in life, there’s no point complaining about situations, the only choice we have is to figure out how to overcome them, and how they will make us better.
We may ask ourselves, why have these bad situations happened to me? The answer is that they are there to turn you into a better person; an Olympic-class individual who can overcome all of life’s problems.
It may not be easy to overcome the obstacle, and it may take some sweat to accomplish. But, every test gives you an opportunity to better yourself if you are prepared to make use of it. Just like a boxer derives the greatest advantage from having a sparring partner – we too, must we see our challenges as our sparring partners.
2. The Door Is Always Open
When faced with challenging times, Epictetus tells us to remember that the door is always open; that we always have a choice.
It is up to you to arrange your priorities; but whatever you decide to do, don’t do it resentfully, as if you were being imposed on.
He asks us “is there smoke in your house?” If it’s not suffocating, then you can choose to stay. If it is suffocating, then you can choose to leave through the door. But either way, the door is always there and always open.
It is always down to us, whether we stay and inhale the smoke, or leave through the door into the fresh air outside. But if you choose to stay, then don’t complain. You have chosen to stay, therefore you only have yourself to blame – not others.
3. Stop Desiring What You Cannot Control
Epictetus teaches us that we must first identify what is in our control, and what is not.
How people perceive us, our jobs, the economy, to a certain extent our health, are all things that we cannot control. The only thing we can truly control is our thoughts and our perception of things. We perceive whether something is good, or bad.
However, we spend our time caring about, and attaching ourselves to external things; material possessions, property, status, family and friends. And, being attached to many things, we are weighed down and dragged along with them.
We should stop desiring and wrapping up your identity in things that are outside our control. If we do not get them, or they do not do as we wish then it can lead to disappointment. A preference for any of these things immediately makes you a slave to them, a subordinate, and prone to be disheartened.
When you see a person suffering from nervousness, think, “well what can they expect“? If they had not set their sights on things outside of their control, their nervousness would end at once.
Take a guitar player: she’s relaxed when she performs alone, but put her in front of an audience, and it’s a different story, no matter how beautiful her voice or how well she plays the instrument. Why? Because she not only wants to perform well, she wants to be well received – and the latter lies outside her control.
The more we value things outside our control, the less control we have. If we are constantly concerned with things that are outside our control, then we will constantly be disappointed. We should seek our own happiness, dependent on no-one or no-thing except ourself.
Epictetus gives out some pretty good advice, considering it was spoken about 1,900 years ago. The world has changed a lot since then, but as humans we haven’t really. It just goes to show that the challenges of the human experience still ring true now, just as they did thousands of years ago.
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