Control vs. Cause

“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.”

“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”
Lao Tzu

A recent article discussing the translation from Greek of the quote above from Epictetus, has caused me to reexamine my interpretation of the Stoic concept of the Dichotomy of Control.

The change is subtle though powerful. Reading the quote, I have always read “up to us” as “in my control” and have added the caveat, “if I choose to or am able to do so.” However, viewing this statement from a cause vs. control perspective provides a subtle but powerful shift in how I can actually use this to improve myself.

I now view my emotions and my actions as caused by me, as opposed to controlled by me. The perfect example is someone who says or does something hurtful to me, vs. their doing it to someone else. Someone cuts me off in traffic; I get pissed. Someone cuts another off in traffic; I don’t have the same reaction. We often only care about those events that directly impact or affect us.

It is me, my emotions, that had the angry reaction. I could also say that my emotions are under my control, but that is both true and false. It is more helpful to view it as I am the cause of my emotions. Whether I want to change these reactions is up to me. All improvement starts with this awareness.

Looking at it from this perspective softens the whole “control” paradigm, with its implicit implication of guilt and failure. If I lose my temper, I am not in “control”; therefore, I have failed. Better to see it as “I am the cause of my anger” and make the conscious choice to change it if I wish, based on an analysis of why the event has caused me to be angry. In the end, it is my choice to be manipulated by the actions of others and suffer the anger which ensues. Likewise, it is my choice not to, if I have the awareness to recognize what is happening.

Viewing it this way is a more realistic approach to dealing with all the challenges of improving ourselves. Often people are trapped in situations beyond their control, be it physical limitations, addictions, psychiatric diseases, bad relationships, or circumstances. They often have no “control” over these, or they are difficult to change.

Starting with the realization that however they react, they are the ones that caused that reaction is a better first step to improvement, rather than telling an addict that their failure to stop taking drugs is a failure of control, which just reinforces their sense of failure.

Improving myself and trying to live according to an ethical code is a difficult and never-ending journey. I am never there, never perfect, because, at the core, I am human with all the evolutionary baggage that implies. That is not an excuse to not try, but rather an acknowledgment that there is no magical cure, phrase, or action that can transform my situation.

It is a journey, it is hard work, and it never ends. And I would not have it any other way.

Food for thought…

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