Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher, is reported to have said, "Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of those things." We would do well to remember this piece of sage wisdom when confronting the seemingly stressful realities of everyday life. How often do your views distort
your circumstances and introduce needless stress into your life?
Circumstances may indeed be fixed and out of your control, but your views are yours for the changing. Sometimes simply taking a different perspective in thought can cause an immediate relief in feeling. An ample illustration of this fact can be seen in how two similar events can produce two vastly different
reactions. Take, for instance, an event familiar to us all: driving around downtown and encountering one red traffic light after another.
Even on those occasions when you are not in a hurry to be anywhere in particular, is it not true that such an insignificant chain of events can infuriate you to the point where you are cursing the gods and bemoaning your fate? And yet at other times you drive around in a relaxed daze, impervious to the onslaught of red. Indeed, who does not enjoy sitting around on the couch doing sweet nothing? Revealing is the fact that a car is pretty much a mobile couch!
Epictetus divided the nature of reality into two categories: things we can control and things we cannot control. The former he termed prohairetic things; the latter he termed aprohairetic things. Examples of prohairetic things include your thoughts, your values, your beliefs, your morals, your opinions, your desires, and your emotions. Examples of aprohairetic things include food served cold, late parcel deliveries, slow trains, long lines, noisy lawnmowers, and red lights. Although you might not be able to achieve the Stoic goal of complete detachment from aprohairetic reality (after all, being mugged in a
dark alley is not simply an inconvenient occurrence!), if you are honest with yourself, you will no doubt appreciate how much you tend to overreact to the most inconsequential of happenings, thereby introducing stress into what could otherwise be a blissful existence -- at least until the next bill arrives.
The simple fact is that stress does not exist in the events around you. Stress is a product of your own mind. If stress existed in events themselves, then everyone would react to so-called stressful events with the same level of stress. Yet surely you know from your own experience that different people have
different stress thresholds, different stress fuses, as it were. Some people grin their way through a tornado, whereas other people grate their way through a lottery win ("What am I supposed to do with all this money? What if I do not manage it properly? Why did this happen to me?"!) Perhaps the headline found in one national newspaper speaks volumes: WOMAN 'UNEXCITED' BY $16M LOTTERY WIN.
Epictetus taught that the individual who succeeds in firmly establishing the distinctions between the prohairetic and the aprohairetic will live a life unencumbered by the stress-inducing tendencies of the untamed human mind. Such an individual will reach the state known as ataraxia, or a serene state of
mind. Another quote from the master stress-blesser: "I must die. Must I then die lamenting? I must be put in chains. Must I then also lament? I must go into exile. Does any man then hinder me from going with smiles and cheerfulness and contentment?"
Epictetus was not the only Stoic philosopher who understood the self-created nature of stress. Marcus Aurelius, another philosopher writing in the Stoic tradition, said, "Outward things cannot touch the soul, not in the least degree; nor have they admission to the soul, nor can they turn or move the soul; but the soul turns and moves itself alone."
Or perhaps more relevant to our own times, particularly with the rising gas prices of the day: I must dump my lead foot on the brake and stop at yet another red light. Does anything hinder me from gloating over the few cents I have saved with my increased fuel economy? My spouse has cheated on me. Does anything hinder me from pulling out the prenup and winning custody of the PlayStation?