Believing in your self is key. Without it, there is little you can do without crumbling to pieces. Virgil said ‘they can conquer who believe they can.’ The absence of self-belief results in an absence of completion or proper action. Not only does believing in ourselves enable us to face a problem, it also helps us overcome it successfully. Believing in yourself is not everything, but it is something, and without it our actions would turn to nothing.
Epictetus was a Greek philosopher of Stoicism who lived from 50-135AD. Born a slave, Epictetus was taught by Musonius Rufus, another Stoic philosopher. He was set free at some point in his life and from there became a teacher of philosophy, first in Rome, then in Greece. Like Socrates, Epictetus wrote little, if anything, in his lifetime and so the majority of Epictetus’ teachings are from his pupil Arrian.
In the Discourses, Epictetus focuses on the things which are in our control and the things which are not. Distinguishing between these two is crucial, and it is this distinction which is the first step to serenity. Epictetus prioritises the mind over the body (‘why do you attach yourself to what is mortal?’), and inherits the Platonic idea that the body is a hindrance to the mind (‘these chains attached to us-the body and its possessions’). Furthermore, the influence of Aristotle can be seen when Epictetus writes of one’s ‘proper end’ and of acting according the human nature-Epictetus seems to use natural law as an argument for how to act (through reasoning-phronesis).
A key idea of Epictetus is of the external and the internal. Most fundamentally, it is our own internal judgement and opinion which causes our acts and our world view, rather than the circumstances around us-he believes we have control over how we view the world and life in general (a main Stoic idea). He says that tragedy is the portrayal,, in tragic verse, of men who have ‘attached high value to external things’. We must not attach ourselves too greatly to the external, but rather focus on what is inside us. Moreover, he emphasises that rather than discussing principles and discussing certain actions, we should act and put our principles into action, as well as aiming to solve problems rather than to complain about them. The human good, Epictetus says, ‘lies in a certain quality of choice.’
From what we know this life is it and there is no life after death. This one life is it. Yes, it may be terrifying, but really it isn’t. Millions of people have died before us, and nothing (as far as we know) terrible or tragic has happened to them. They died, and that’s it. Death becomes scary only when we allow ourselves to have too tight a hold on our life now. When we’re dead, it will be simple non-existence. It won’t hurt or harm you because the ‘you’ will no longer exist. The consciousness which your brain creates will no longer be. That is all. Death should not just be something which we do not fear, but which we can use as a tool for life. Life is limited, use it while it’s here. When the time comes, you will want to accept Death knowing that you’ve drained everything out of life, rather than let life slip by, not to be seen ever again. When Death comes, may you embrace it as a welcome friend, rather than an untimely enemy.
What if this is it? What if this is all there is to life, that we are simply organisms, made of cells and atoms, struggling for survival in the blind and indifferent mechanism of nature? What if life is but a meaningless affair? So be it. It may all come to nothing in the very end, but for now it means something. What we do has temporary meaning. What we do will affect not only ourselves, but those around us, and those who do not even exist yet. We should not despair in the face of pessimism. Even if it seems to us that we have been forced into a poor and unfair deal, we should not fall into abysmal nihilism. Something can come out of the nothingness, if only for a short time. That is the paradox of life-it may be meaningless, but life does not have to be without meaning. At least for the short time we exist, we can create something that is, for the moment, and for many future moments, worthwhile. That is all that matters.
Whenever you cannot be bothered or decide to say no to an opportunity out of fear or because you do not wish to put yourself at risk, remember that one day you won’t ever be able to even make such a decision, and that when that day comes, you will have wished that you took the risk. Take the risk, become closer to knowing what it means to be alive, and live on the edge, since a life of risk is the only life worth living.
We are all prone to developing an addiction. In fact, it may be that we are all, in fact, addicted to something or other. It may be coffee, cigarettes, a TV programme, work, success, or hope among many others. Most addictions are really a problem, and an addiction only becomes worth fighting when it begins to cause oneself harm, as well as those around oneself. We may find that it is addiction that indeed gets us through the day, and that the next cup of tea or the next TV episode is what keeps us going when times seem tough. However, many have other commitments-the thought of supporting one’s family or helping others may also act as a driving force for acts and deeds.
Now and again, we should ask ourselves why we are doing what we are doing and try to recognise if we are becoming dependent on things which are beginning to do us, and others, harm. Addiction, it seems, is natural, but can easily become dangerous. Perhaps a hint of detachment from the business of life-through meditation or contemplation-may enable us also to detach ourselves slightly from our addictions, as well as providing a good opportunity for reflection on one’s life up to this point and time to dwell on what we want to do with the time we have left.
To the Buddha, it was desire which causes suffering. Being alive, however, means to desire, and so he concluded that life is therefore suffering. Our brains have evolved to the extent that we are continuously desiring. Once a desire is fulfilled, another desire comes along, perhaps with an intermittent stage of boredom. Our brains evolved like this for survival. Maintaining a continuous flow of desire means maintaining existence which is, ultimately, the goal of the brain-to preserve the human species. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote extensively on the suffering of the world, and argued that life ‘swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom.’ We may at times find ourselves either bored or dissatisfied with life, or both simultaneously. How, then, can we remove unnecessary or unwanted pain? First, we should remember that some pain is necessary and useful, but if pain is truly unwanted, and we believe that the pain will not benefit us in the future or aid us in achieving future goals, then there are few things which we can do:
Tyler Durden of Fight Club said that ‘it’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.’ Even if we do not want to lose everything, we can still remove the things in our life which we do not want or enjoy or need. We should also recognise that the time that matters is here and now, and that although the future is important to some extent, it doesn’t even exist yet, and so we should, perhaps, focus on today, rather than worrying about tomorrow. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we must remind ourselves, when times seem bad, that it could be much, much worse. Yes, it could be better, but reminding ourselves that it could be worse may give us a slightly more objective viewpoint which may help put things in perspective. Another point is that, eventually, one day, you will be dead. None of this pain or boredom now will not matter to you. Nothing at all will matter to you when you’re dead, and on the spectrum of the universe, death is going to come pretty soon, so perhaps reminding ourselves of death’s nearing hand may, strangely, cheer us up since we know that petty complaining and suffering may seem to matter now, but once you’re on your death bed, will you regret allowing all that worry and pain and stress to get to you, rather than enjoying life while it allows you to?
Schopenhauer himself may have advised turning pain into knowledge, and using suffering as a tool for achievement. We may now, though, conclude that a great deal of our suffering, pain and boredom can be dealt with simply by altering our perspective and the way we see the world, existence, and ultimately, our own selves.
The future you is already someone else. Some other person has written a book, some other person can run a marathon, some other person has the job you want. The goals you have today have most likely already been achieved by other people. This fact can do two things:
I) it lets us know that what are aiming for is possible, and so we know that, if we try hard enough, we can attain it
II) it can be used as a target. Using Ovid’s quote about horses running fast when other horses are in front, we can use the fact that people are ahead of us as a booster and a motivational tool to work more intensely and passionately towards what we want to do.
Another quote of Ovid, the notorious Roman poet: ‘Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you.’ This quote expresses the good of sacrifice and suffering. Not all suffering is good, but not all suffering is bad either. The pain you experience now is worth the gains you will experience later. It’s a simple fact. If we want to be good at something, we have to be willing to hurt for it, for our goal, for ourselves.
First, then, be willing. Be open to pain, and soon enough, if used in the right way, that pain will open the doors of satisfaction.
When you wake up each morning, do you feel alive? Do you think to yourself that what you are going to do today is going to make you feel alive, or is it going to make you feel dead? Are you having near-life experiences, are you constantly in a state of near-death? Now and again we must ask ourselves if what we are doing makes us feel alive. If it isn’t, it’s not worth it. You and I don’t exist so that we can live each day as walking dead. There are things which make us feel alive, which take us to pinnacle of existence itself. Now and again we may find ourselves in a near-life experience, as mentioned before, and the experience may be one of great intensity and vigour, reminding us of the power of existence. It is not easy to know what makes us feel alive, yet we must try things out to see whether they bring us experiences that are worthwhile. Nietzsche said that ‘the devotion of the greatest is to encounter risk and danger, and play dice for death.’ If we want to be alive rather than dead, we must be willing to risk things, even ourselves. A simple but powerful question we can ask ourselves is ‘how can I make today more alive?’ Near-life experiences can be gotten from even the most boring tasks of daily life. To do this though, we must be willing to risk ourselves.
‘Some things are within your control. And some things are not.’ Too often we may find ourselves trying to control things that we cannot ultimately control, and an intense frustration may ensue from this. Epictetus, the author of this quote, said that this realisation of control is a principle which must be understood if one wants to be happy and free. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of amor fati (love of fate), an idea that we should not become frustrated with the way things are, but rather that it is fate and so we should, perhaps, maintain a certain distance from the events around us, particularly the ones we dislike. In Fight Club, Tyler Durden says: ‘Stop trying to control everything and let go!’ It may be the case that at times we must prevent ourselves from trying to impose our power over everything, and instead just accept how things are.
This is not to say that there is nothing we can control. There are some things which we can influence. Yet there are many more things which we cannot. Acceptance of the uncontrollable is another step, and it may be the first, to freedom.