Stoicism and the Delightfully Terrifying Art of Relinquishing Control
One account of breaking free from control-freak, type-A tendencies and just letting go
“We are more often frightened than hurt and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.” These were words written by Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger.
Before I came across this quote or read up on Stoicism, the ancient philosophy this post touches on, I realized that I had grappled with the implications of the saying through the years. It seemed that the ups and downs of life would often dictate to me where I stood between the things Seneca referred to. When life ran smoothly, it was easy to distinguish fear from pain, suffering in imagination from suffering in reality. Easy because I experienced none of these things. When the going got tough, they would all morph into a giant blur. Suddenly, frightened and hurt were one and the same. Suffering was suffering no matter how you sliced it.
Learning the ropes of what Seneca talks about is a form of self-mastery that isn’t taught in school; it is learned as we live, sharpened, day in and day out, through practice. As with other philosophies and religions, the starting point is to anchor yourself to your principles (in Stoicism, these are four particular virtues: wisdom, morality, courage, and temperance); that is to say you are not merely an object that outside forces act upon. In this, there is a lot of power immediately; it can enable people to remain steadfast in whatever goal they have, shield themselves from unimportant but tempting distraction and, as another Stoic Epictetus put it, get people to see that “the more we value things outside our control, the less control we have.”
It’s no wonder that we feel frightened––of uncertainty, judgment, rejection, the future––and then misconstrue this for pain. It’s also no wonder that our feelings and thoughts can become the source of our own suffering, be it in small or large doses that either cripple us or cause self-sabotage.
Many other philosophies play up this “art of letting go.” In contemporary speak, author Mark Manson likes to call it, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. He sees it as a counterintuitive approach to living a good life. That’s part of the beauty of Stoicism: It is self-preservation by way of self-restraint. And it can open doors to all things like a virtuous life, happiness and fulfillment. Because in a world so oriented to reacting, getting quick results, putting out fires and moving fast to get to these goals, Stoicism asks people to stop and think logically, keep calm and, most of all, resist the urge to be ruled by emotions and impulses.
“We suffer not from the events in our lives but from our judgment about them.” ― Epictetus
It’s a lot easier said than done, but getting a taste of it is liberating enough to motivate anyone to see Stoicism through. In my early 20s, I had such an experience. In what was considered my dream job, I got the privilege of working directly under the company’s CEO. It was an opportunity I was aware didn’t come often and one I had no intention of wasting. Though to put it lightly, this boss was a hardcore fan of tough love, I believed I developed a thick skin for it.
Without warning one day, she dropped by my workstation and asked to see the progress my teammate and I had made on a feature. “What is this?!” she screamed. “This is shit!” I could see in my peripheral vision heads in the office turning in our direction, tuned in as we got a good verbal beating. The dichotomy of control at play: some things are up to us and other things are not. So I stood next to her as she finished giving us her notes and got back to work when she left.
I laughed this off days later, joking, “I’m used to the sermons given by my father, so this incident wasn’t the worst.” This is not to put my dad in a bad light (his comments are always constructive and come from a place of love). Parenting to him means giving things straight to his kids––with words that might not be nice to hear but words they need to hear if they want what’s good for them. If anything, it’s from my father that I learned how to make good with unideal situations. To learn to appreciate the two domains of life: the external or things outside of our control and the internal or our interpretations of and reactions to the former. It always starts with parking emotions at the door.
There were many ways I could have dealt with the office incident. I could have appeared proactive and checked if I could borrow some of our boss’ time after the fact to find out how the team could redeem itself. I could have indulged my ego, talked about our boss behind her back with officemates (preferably over a drink or two). I could have given in to emotion (the easiest to do by far and something I admittedly had done one other time at the office), gone to the bathroom, given it a good cry, washed my face and then gone back to work. None of these, though, felt to me like a sound fit.
Because in seeking out the boss, I realized I would be asking for approval from someone whose values didn’t exactly align with mine. I would have made the mistake of looking for validation outside when I was better off seeking counsel from a mentor who would speak to facts and not just drop F-bombs. As for a diminished ego, moaning about the mishandling of the situation would have been truly counterproductive. Besides, the ego could always be brought down a peg or two. I wasn’t an associate looking to disregard the input of the CEO of a company. I was there to learn what I could from her and unlearn the unpleasantries. As for emotion, as Stoics believe, it in no way makes a reliable compass. Nothing is ever the end of everything, but it sure feels like it sometimes. Feelings have the power to do that: to amplify the good experiences and conversely, the bad, and then nudge us to believe that our perception is reality. Above all, however, emotions are fleeting––both the good and the bad. And the sooner we make peace with this duality, the better.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” – Viktor Frankl
Looking back, I wonder what the outcomes would have been had I tried to actively contain and control the situation, had I fed my ego, had I cried and allowed myself to feel helpless. All I know now is that my decision to do nothing was the best decision I made that day. And this new way of thinking has given me an avenue––although I do get sidetracked from time to time and still give in to my type-A tendencies––to take back my power and to see control in a whole different way.
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver