These Are Some Stoic Questions That Will Change Your Life (Pt. 1)

We are back with another longer-form email. This weekend, we wanted to focus on some Stoic questions. Because, while the instinct is to look for answers, the truth is that questions teach us most. We will do this in two parts. Part 1 today. Part 2 tomorrow. Let’s get right into it: here are the first 3 Stoic questions that will change your life…

Who do you spend time with?

There was a proverb in the ancient world: “If you dwell with a lame man, you will learn how to limp.” It’s a pretty observable truth. We become like the people we spend the most time with. That’s why we have to be so careful about the influences we allow into our life.

But that idea of dwelling with a lame man cuts both ways. Epictetus was famously “lame,” having had his leg crippled while in slavery. Marcus Aurelius spent enormous amounts of time with Epictetus’s writings. It didn’t make him limp—it made him wiser, more resilient, calmer, more compassionate. Epictetus passed those things onto him. A slave shaped a king and made him better.

As Epictetus himself said, “It is inevitable that if you spend time with people on a regular basis…you will grow to be like them…Remember that if you consort with someone covered in dirt you can hardly avoid getting a little grimy yourself.”

Is this in my control?

Epictetus said that the chief task in life is to make the distinction between what is in our control and what is not. What we have influence over and what we do not.

The recovery community practices the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” People in recovery cannot change the abuse suffered in childhood. They cannot undo the choices they have made or the hurt they have caused. But they can change the future—through the power they have in the present moment. As Epictetus said, they can control the choices they make right now.

The same is true for us today. If we can focus on making clear what parts of our day are within our control and what parts are not, we will be happier, we will be kinder, and we will have an advantage over other people fighting unwinnable battles.

Is this essential?

“If you seek tranquility,” Marcus Aurelius said, “do less.”

And then he follows the note to himself with some clarification. Not nothing, less. Do only what’s essential. “Which brings a double satisfaction,” he writes, “to do less, better.”

What’s interesting is Seneca said the same thing. “We will benefit from that helpful precept of Democritus,” he wrote, “showing us that tranquility lies in not undertaking tasks, either in public or private, that are either numerous or greater than our resources.”

If we do less inessential stuff, we’re able to better do what is essential. A double satisfaction.


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