On what is and isn’t under your control

Learn how to avoid dissipating your energy during the times of despair

Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

The first thing that ought to be realized by a philosopher is the knowledge of what is and what isn’t under her control. This is because expending energy on things outside our control is futile. This energy could be diverted towards those things that are good and fruitful now at the eternal present. Why would you despair at the thought of certain death, which we all will ultimately face?

Therefore it is useful to have a handy list of items that are and aren’t in our control to ensure we direct our mental and physical energy towards the beneficial.

There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.

— Epictetus, Enchiridion

Traditionally in the Stoic tradition, Epictetus has introduced the dichotomy of control. It is certainly true that some items fall under the category of things completely under our control, and those completely outside our control. However this idea could be extended a bit and it is conceivable to also talk about category of things, which are partly under our control. Therefore we end up with a trichotomy rather than dichotomy of control. I came across trichotomy of control reading William Irvine’s The Guide to Good Life.

So what are examples of items in the trichotomy of control? Have a read below and remind yourself again during the time of anxiety or despair. Ask yourself is this something in my complete control, partial control or completely outside my control? As Epictetus recommends be prepared to be totally dis-concerned about things that fall under the category of things completely outside your control, and be somewhat dis-concerned and have a sense of cool for those things that are partly under your control.

Examples of things in our complete control

The reality is only very few things are under our complete control. It includes things like: our values, our goals, our cultivated virtues, our assessment of impressions. Most of the people don’t spend any time or energy in this category of things and it is certainly foolish to do so. Isn’t it rational to spend a lot of energy on things completely in our control? When we work and cultivate the items that fall under the category of things in our control we can lead a good life and have a compass to help us pass through life in happy manner even if wheel of misfortune spins aggressively downwards for us.

Examples of things completely outside our control

There are infinitely many items in this category. Some examples include: whether there is a glitch in plane engine which falls to ground and kills everybody on board, whether there is earthquake in Japan tomorrow, whether there is flooding in English countryside threatening stock and agriculture, whether a bloody and atrocious war between countries start, whether somebody reciprocates your love and affection, what people think of you, whether economy collapses, whether a meteorite strikes Earth and wipes all living forms, whether COVID19 emerges! If you find yourself worrying about those sorts of issues then make an effort to stop immediately. Otherwise, what is the point? If bad misfortune is bound to happen, it will happen and there is nothing you can do about it. If tomorrow I am to die, then let it be. If God-nature adds another morrow, smile and count yourself among happiest of the happy. If your attempts to start and maintain a loving relationship which ends with failure than accept it with equanimity.

Example of things partly under our control

It is those things that can be influenced by us, but where the ultimate outcome is not in our control. Examples include starting a business and aiming to make it successful, training for sport competition and aiming to be among the best performers, writing a book and aiming to sell it worldwide, taking part in political election and aiming for public office, organising a course aiming to sell it, working on getting job promotion. The key thing to realize is that precisely because the outcome is not in our control, we should not aim to succeed in those endeavours. Instead we should internalize the goals by doing our best. If we succeed than we should count ourselves as the happiest of happy. If not, we will still be happy because our goal was to do our best and that we have achieved.

A wise philosopher will devote all his energy to the category of things completely in her control and category of things partly in her control, while things outside the control she will shun away from!