My most recent fascination has been with what is known as Stoicism, which seems to have become the “new Zen.” Stoicism is a school of philosophy that was founded in Athens. The philosophy states that “Virtue (meaning, chiefly, the four cardinal virtues of self-control, courage, justice, and wisdom) is happiness, and it is our perception of things—rather than the things themselves—that cause most of our trouble.”
Reading about the Stoic philosophy after having also studied other philosophies including Buddhism and Taoism, I was led to the following ultimate realization. Seemingly different wellness philosophies all speak to one universal truth: the human condition is such that we aspire to live fuller, more balanced, peaceful, and meaningful lives. The only real difference is the pathways that lead us there.
The Power of the “Serenity Prayer”
What I find most intriguing about the Stoic philosophy is their focus on choice and control. According to Ryan Holiday, in his book The Daily Stoic, the most important practice in Stoic philosophy is being able to differentiate between what we can change and what we can’t.
For this reason, he starts his book by reminding us of the Serenity Prayer, which speaks to this topic of change so wisely.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” So simple, yet so truly profound.
For almost two years now we have faced a global pandemic and unprecedented levels of uncertainty. With uncertainty comes a lack of control and choice, which can feel truly disempowering. For this reason, these past few years have been challenging for many people.
We had to accept hard things that felt out of our control, and we had to find the courage to change what was within our control. We too can apply this to our daily lives. Each day we’re asked to navigate these waters and make healthy choices.
To graciously accept the things we cannot change means to choose to accept and surrender to that which we cannot control. To courageously change what we can means to choose to become skillful and resourceful and find ways to change that which is in our control.
For some people, the acceptance piece is hardest, and for others it’s finding the courage to change. But what can also prove to be quite tricky is knowing the difference—when to accept and give in to the lack of control and when to take ownership, take control of the situation and be accountable for real change.
Sometimes this is very clear, and other times it’s not so apparent. For this reason, we ask for the wisdom to know the difference, so we can properly reason and discern the truth. And even then, we will have to experiment using trial and error. We may think that something is within our control and try to change it, only to find out—oftentimes the hard way—that it is not. Alternatively, we may too readily accept something as “this is the way it is” only to later realize that it was something we could have changed.
The wisdom to know the difference is key.
In a recent coaching session, a client expressed her upset and anger around two scenarios. She was stuck in these uncomfortable feelings and stewing relentlessly in a way that left her feeling exhausted, depleted, and overwhelmed.
I decided to open my book and read her the segment from The Daily Stoic that spoke to this concept. Upon hearing it, she was able to see that her issue with her son was entirely within her control and the incident that occurred the week prior was unchangeable and, therefore, did not warrant her time and energy. She appreciated the gesture and said it helped to offer her some well-needed perspective.
Many people would rather fight with an unmovable reality or resist an inconvenient truth than accept it. It’s our conditioned default setting. It’s like being right. Many people will fight to be right no matter what the cost! These people reject the concept of acceptance and instead try to find some element that they can control. It can be devastating to watch the outcome of this. Resisting reality is what causes our suffering. We could all use some perspective and reframing from time to time to reduce this kind of unnecessary suffering.
In The Daily Stoic, in his chapter on “Clarity,” Holiday writes:
“This morning, remind yourself of what is in your control and what’s not in your control. Remind yourself to focus on the former and not the latter. Before lunch, remind yourself that the only thing you truly possess is your ability to make choices (and to use reason and judgment when doing so). This is the only thing that can never be taken from you completely… In the evening, remind yourself again how much is outside of your control and where your choices begin and end.”
And according to the Stoics:
“The circle of control contains just one thing: YOUR MIND… You’ve got just that one-item list. You’ve got just one thing to manage: your choices, your will, your mind.”
If we better understand control and choice and the power of our mind, we can choose to use our energy more wisely to empower ourselves and others.