I suppose I was about five or six years old, at a time when my awareness of life was just developing, when I began to notice that on some days things went well and that on others they went badly. In my still infantile way of thinking, I conceived the idea of classifying days as either good or bad. As it then seemed to me, some external force, fate perhaps, was conspiring against me to turn what might have been good days into bad ones.
As I understood it then, when bad days happened, I was powerless to change the course of events. On one of those bad days, things were simply going to go awry. I was helpless in the hands of fate, through no fault of my own, and I could do no more than suffer through until better times came along. And suffer I did. The sense I had that things were out of my control, that I was but putty in some larger hands, was oppressive. I felt as though I was a pawn in someone else’s chess match and that I might easily be sacrificed in a game I could not comprehend.
This was juvenile stuff, of course. As I grew into my teens and throughout my student days, I steadily developed a greater source of personal responsibility for the outcomes of my actions. And I built an understanding that I could manage my responses to adverse events by regulating my emotional response to them.
And so it continued into my adult life. I built up my capacity to better manage events in my life through careful planning and, when things didn’t happen as expected, by absorbing the impact as unfortunate necessities. Gone by then was the sense that a day had to be either good or bad as a whole. Bad things could happen, but they need not spoil an entire day if they were mixed in with good things.
It was not until late in life that I encountered the Stoics and their special form of philosophy. From the reading I did, I began to evolve a different, and more helpful, mode of thinking about how to achieve a balanced life, one freed up from being battered by the inevitable ebb and flow of events.
I read first Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, an easily approachable source of wisdom collected from other Stoic writers, most notably Epictetus, the freed slave turned teacher whose brilliant thoughts were set down by one of his students. I sampled the many letters and essays by Seneca, whose writings are replete with valuable advice on living a good life. And, I read many others whose thoughts, inspired by the Stoics, added to their central messages.
“When you are upset by any external thing, it’s not the thing itself that troubles you, but only the way you are judging it. And you can wipe that judgment out at once.”
A principal lesson I learned from the Stoics can be easily summed up. While I cannot fully control the flow of events that impact my life, some of which can be bad, I am nonetheless in full control of how I respond to them. While I can plan to accommodate adverse events by anticipating their possibility, some are unavoidable. When they happen, I can take full control of my response to these events by managing my response. I can choose to accept the things that occur as though they happened for the best. It is both my opportunity and responsibility to respond to all things with equanimity.
“Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it already will–then your life will flow well.”
My studies of Stoic philosophy and the work of other writers led me to compile a list of sayings that are helpful to me in reinforcing this practice and keeping it vital. When I’d accumulated enough of them, I had them printed in a slender book titled On Living Well: Reflections on Creating a Good Life. I’ve shared it on Amazon for a modest price. If like me you’ve experienced trouble in managing your responses to life’s ups and downs, you may find this collection of wisdom helpful. For myself, I dip into it daily to refresh my appreciation of this advice.