“Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions–in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.”
(Epictetus, the Handbook )
by Dr. Norris Frederick
Fear. One of the worst things about the pandemic is the fear. Fear of an invisible attacker, of isolation, illness and death of loved ones and of ourselves. The second-century C.E. Stoic philosopher Epictetus has much to offer as a philosophy for living today, useful for not only the novel coronavirus epidemic, but for all sorts of life situations.
The opening sentence of his Handbook is a simple and powerful idea, when understood fully: “Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.” Such a simple idea, and yet mastery of living it can take a lifetime. A slave during his early years, Epictetus found awareness of what’s up to him invaluable in his life. Slaves are under constant threat of the anger and whims of the master, but Epictetus realized that no matter what happened he had a realm of control that was entirely his – his thoughts, what he valued, what he wanted to approach or to avoid, even his impulses. His situation as a slave gave ample opportunity to practice knowing what’s up to him and what’s not.
What’s Up to Us
Epictetus elaborates that opening sentence with, “Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions–in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.”
Our judgment and our will and our effort are up to us. “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things.” It’s understandable when a child can’t stop screaming because his balloon has popped, but not when adults react that way. Adults understand the nature of balloons: that balloons may pop is just reality.
Notice how we became mature about balloons: we first had some training, and then lots of practice and fieldwork about how to think about balloons. We had temper tantrums about what we wanted and couldn’t have when things were out of our control. Then we realize that the balloon, our possession, wasn’t up to us. But our judgment about that balloon popping is up to us.
If we break a favorite coffee cup, there well may be a moment of “dammit!,” but if we remain angry about the broken cup, then it’s our judgment that makes us angry, not the fact that the coffee cup has broken, It’s simply reality that coffee cups can break. Thinking that we must have what’s not in our control is a recipe for unhappiness, a life out of sync with the nature of things. It’s fine to prefer that our cup not break, and even to take care that it not break, but ultimately that’s not in our control.
If we understand Epicurus’s division of what’s up to us and what’s not, that will help us to realize it is up to us to let go of our particular irrational beliefs, like, “You must be the way I want you to be,” or I must please everyone,” life goes much better for you and those around you. Stoicism is the philosophical basis for today’s cognitive-behavioral therapy.
What’s Not Up to Us
If we practice and learn from popped balloons and broken cups, we may be able to move on to more serious matters. As we generalize our thinking about what’s in our control and what’s not, we can apply it to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Let’s look at what Epictetus says is not up to us.
- Our body. Surely that is up to us, in our control? The pandemic alone is enough to show us that it’s not up to us. Countless stories in the news and perhaps ones we know personally, show that our bodies are not up to us. Our genetics – not up to us, for sure – have a great influence on our overall health, for good or for ill. And certainly, our age is not up to us, as well as several underlying health conditions, all of which could contribute to our contracting COVID-19.
- Our possessions. Also not up to us. The reality is that many people may lose their house or business as the pandemic forces the stop of their jobs and income.
- Our reputations. While what we do may influence how we are regarded by others, that’s not up to us, either. Someone who is sufficiently motivated and skillful or powerful may be able to convince others that we are hoarders, the ones who take all the toilet paper. And get ready for the attack ads in the November elections.
Thinking perhaps of his master and life events we all may face, Epictetus wrote, “Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose.” It’s in the mind’s ability to make rational choices that we have power: “Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens [that no event hinders your ability to choose your reaction to it], then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.” Ultimately, for the Stoic, I am my rational mind, my soul, not my body.
I should “say to myself” that I can prefer good health, and take actions to promote it, but I can’t ultimately control my good health, due to any number of things. So what I CAN do is to take precautions, do my best to care about and protect our fellow humans, and realize that even so I may become ill and even die, given factors that are out of my control. What remains in my control, if I have practiced sufficiently all the possible previous situations, is my mind/soul, my will, my effort.
As you read and think, you may be forming reasonable objections to the Stoic view. But for the time being, keep in mind that every theory that endures, whether in philosophy or epidemiology, has its strength and its limitations. We don’t give up on epidemiology just because different models of the virus’s spread predict different peaks of infection, different number of deaths. To look for the perfect theory is to engage in magical thinking. Epidemiology is useful, within limits. The same can be said for Stoicism.
The Power of Living Out What’s Up to Us
Nelson Mandela, The Economist, December 14, 2013.
The Stoic ideal is a person who lives calmly, in accord with nature, and does his or her best to be a good citizen. The person who does so has constructed a safe “inner citadel,” invulnerable to the many forces he could not control. In the midst of the illness and deaths of COVID-19, we admire the nurses, doctors and cleaners who do their work in the midst of great danger, we admire citizens in cities of the world singing from balconies of their homes, we admire those who realize that ultimately their minds and spirit and reactions are up to them.
No one illustrates that inner citadel better than Nelson Mandela during the twenty-seven years he was a political prisoner in South Africa. As in the poem “Invictus,” he was not conquered, he was unbowed. During all those years of physical and mental abuse, hunger, and the isolation (for many years his contact allowed with family was only one letter every six months), he realized what was up to him.
He had memorized “Invictus,” a poem with a Stoic outlook, and said it to himself, and quoted “Invictus” to his fellow prisoners to encourage them. President Barack Obama quoted the last stanza at the end of his eulogy at Mandela’s funeral service in 2013.
“He speaks to what is best inside us. After this great liberator is laid to rest; when we have returned to our cities and villages, and rejoined our daily routines, let us search then for his strength – for his largeness of spirit – somewhere inside ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, or our best laid plans seem beyond our reach – think of Madiba [Mandela], and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of a cell:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”
We will never hear about the vast majority of people who display courage during this pandemic. Like Mandela, we can all focus on what’s up to us. The outcome – for ourselves and for our friends, family, and neighbors — is never guaranteed. Epidemiologists say it’s extremely likely we’ll have another round of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 this coming fall, and perhaps increased infections and hospitalizations even this month as stay-at-home restrictions are relaxed. Already the talk of loosened restrictions has led to scenes in our city of people ignoring social distancing.
Ultimately, the result is not up to us. What is up to us is our reaction and our will. Living with calmness, determination, patience and concern for others is a powerful example for others and intrinsically good, regardless of our preference that the pandemic and suffering end soon.
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 Epictetus, The Handbook, section 1, translated Nicholas P White, Handbook of Epictetus. Indianapolis: Hackett. 1983.
 Handbook, 4.
 Pierre Hadot, The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Harvard University Press; Revised edition, 2001.
 “Mariba” is Mandela’s traditional clan name.