The Daily Stoic: January 1, 2021

Filed in PhilosophyTags: Clarity, Daily Stoic, Epictetus, Perception

Reflections on The Daily Stoic:

  • The Discipline of Perception
  • January's Theme: Clarity
  • Topic: Control and Choice
  • Stoic: Epictetus

Today's quote:

The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own...

- Discourses, 2.5.4-5

What a prescient thought with which to begin 2021, given the tumultuous nature of 2020: pandemic, social unrest, political turmoil, and more. For all of us, 2020 was likely an object lesson in discerning that which is under our control and that which is not. Failing to recognize the difference undoubtedly led to considerable anxiety.

What, then, are we left with, in the face of so much that we cannot control? The Daily Stoic connects these words of Epictetus with something with which we are likely familiar: the Serenity Prayer. There is an abridged version, popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous; the full version reads as follows:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Living one day at a time, Enjoying one moment at a time, Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,

Taking, as Jesus did, This sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it, Trusting that You will make all things right,

If I surrender to Your will, So that I may be reasonably happy in this life, And supremely happy with You forever in the next.


We can see a biblical basis for the principles expressed in both the words of Epictetus and in the Serenity Prayer. As 2020 demonstrated, there is so much that we cannot control in this world and in our lives. As Christians, we understand that, ultimately, God is in control. "Be still, and know that I am God..." (Psalm 46:10) But we are still human; it is in our nature to worry even about the things that we cannot control. Thus, we ask God for grace to accept those things with serenity: the state of being calm, at peace, and untroubled. As Paul instructed the church at Philippi: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:6-7)

As Epictetus suggested, when we stop focusing on that which is not under our control, we free ourselves to focus on those things that we can influence, control, or change. Here, Epictetus emphasizes choices, and differentiates between external choices we cannot control and internal choices that we can control. In the face of so much that we cannot control, it becomes all too tempting - all too easy - to make victims of ourselves. We relinquish what initiative we have to act in our given circumstances. But even when it seems that we have control over nothing else, we can still how we respond to our circumstances:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

- Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor

As Christians, just as we understand that God is ultimately in control, we also understand that our ultimate struggle is not the earthly circumstances in which we find ourselves - no matter how dire - but rather, ours is a spiritual battle. In that battle, we are called to do no more than stand: "Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand." (Ephesians 6:13) And yes, as the Serenity Prayer states, we are called to be courageous! "For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline." (2 Timothy 1:7) This aligns perfectly with Epictetus, who contemplates the battle between good and evil that we wage within ourselves, in the choices that we make.

Following this advice is, I believe, why I find myself to be less and less engaged in political debate. Perhaps too many of us have been too focused on what happens day-to-day in Washington, D.C. (or Portland, Kenosha, and elsewhere), driven by 24-7, sensationalized news coverage (from left, right, or center) - putting ourselves in a perpetual state of agitation and anxiety. Perhaps the lesson is to remember that God is in control, and to find a better balance between being informed of sociopolitical events and being so focused on them that we lose sight of that which we can control, and that which we should be trying to change: ourselves.

Perhaps we may find relevant advice - even wisdom to discern the difference between that which we can control and that which we cannot - in the words of Paul to Titus (Titus 3:1-11):

Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.

But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned.

This is how I choose to approach 2021.