The stoic philosopher Senaca said, “Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”
Elif Batuman wrote “How to be a Stoic” for The New Yorker last year. Here’s a shortened version of it:
Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher, was born a slave, around 55 A.D., in present-day Turkey. The first line of his manual of ethical advice, “Some things are in our control and others not”—made me feel that a weight was being lifted off my chest. For Epictetus, the only thing we can totally control, and therefore the only thing we should ever worry about, is our own judgment about what is good. If we desire money, health, sex, or reputation, we will inevitably be unhappy. If we genuinely wish to avoid poverty, sickness, loneliness, and obscurity, we’ll live in constant anxiety and frustration. Of course, fear and desire are unavoidable. Everyone feels those flashes of dread or anticipation. Being a Stoic means interrogating those flashes: asking whether they apply to things outside your control and, if they do, being “ready with the reaction ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’ ”
Most of the pain in my life came not from any actual privations or insults but, rather, from the shame of thinking they could’ve been avoided. Wasn’t it my fault that meaning continued to elude me or that my love life was a shambles? When I read that nobody should ever feel ashamed to be alone or to be in a crowd, I realized that I often felt ashamed of both of those things. Epictetus’ advice: when alone, “call it peace and liberty, and consider yourself the gods’ equal”; in a crowd, think of yourself as a guest at an enormous party, and celebrate the best you can.
Epictetus also won me over with his tone. If you want to become a Stoic, he said, you’ll suffer losses and humiliations and yet every setback is an advantage, an opportunity for learning and glory. This is a very powerful trick.
Epictetus’ advice about not getting angry at slaves is this simple exercise: “Starting with things of little value—a bit of spilled oil, a little stolen wine—repeat to yourself: ‘For such a small price, I buy tranquillity.’ ”
Born nearly two thousand years before Darwin and Freud, Epictetus seems to have anticipated a way out of their prisons. The sense of doom and delight that is programmed into the human body? It can be overridden by the mind. The eternal war between subconscious desires and the demands of civilization? It can be won. Now cognitive-behavioral therapy is based largely on Epictetus’ claim that “it is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them.”
If you want a good place to start checking out Stoic philosophy try Ryan Holidays’ book “The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living.” It’s a daily bite sized nugget from various Stoics accompanied by a short discussion of the quote. In a nutshell, use your own judgment about what’s good and ignoring what’s beyond your control.