“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” – Epictetus, Enchiridion
The above is how Epictetus’s Enchiridion starts. We can’t be sure that it is exactly how Epictetus wrote it nor that the translation is exact. It is the source of a Stoic concept called the dichotomy of control.
It is easy to find explanations or descriptions of it all over the internet. But what none of these sources can do is provide an answer in the moment. Such an answer can only be found through applying the framework that emerges from that quote. But even more so, through regular practice.
Maybe that’s why it has been integrated into the serenity prayer.
What makes it useful to think about things within our power is the way we deal with situations in which we are confronted with our desire to control things around us.
When people find themselves confronted with something that isn’t in their control, they will often try to get it under their control. It is a mostly unconscious reaction to the possibility of feeling powerless. It is a move to reject a feeling one does not like and the hope that one can be powerful. Avoiding looking at what is outside of our control prevents us from knowing when one is powerless.
And so, people developed many ways to prepare for such situations. They will plan, prepare, or act in such a way that gives them a sense of being able to achieve their objective. When it doesn’t work out frustrations, anxiety, anger, and bitterness may appear. But they will only appear, whenever the starting point was in the idea that one can achieve control.
Similarly, the consequences of one’s doing will not always be to people’s liking. The way people often react to unintended outcomes is by searching for the reason why it wasn’t their doing. They now look for reasons it wasn’t within their control. Again, it is because of the appearance of a feeling of powerlessness they seek to avoid.
What people do is based on their beliefs, their values, and their perspectives. All of which may also not be to other people’s liking. And sometimes, they are not even as clear as one thinks. Seeing how these are within one’s control doesn’t imply that they would have ensured achieving the objectives one had or what one desired to have. It takes courage to stand up to them as well as to accept that they may not always lead to the hoped-for result.
But taking responsibility for them is how learning can unfold. It’s how values, perspectives, and beliefs develop and can change.
Following what Epictetus says, “Make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it happens” is difficult. But it tends to reduce the occurrences of feeling powerless.
Developing one’s own view of what is within our power is where it starts. And what one always comes back to.