Just when we thought things couldn’t get any crazier, last week happened. And with it, a President who refuses to support the peaceful transfer of power – one of the central tenets of democracy, and a Supreme Court nomination process that threatens to divide the country further. It’s enough to make even the most unflappable person lose his or her mind.
I get it. I really do. I understand the outrage, the frustration, the fear. At times, I experience all of these emotions. Yet, as I reflect on the events unfolding around me, I am reminded of a basic distinction. I can focus on the Sisyphean task of trying to fix a world that I largely don’t and can’t control, or I can focus on my own growth and evolution. Of course, these two aims are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, I would be the first to say we need to do both. But it is our disproportionate (and at times exclusive) focus on the former that is the source of our suffering. And, paradoxically, our ineffectiveness.
The question of how we build a better world and, at the same time, how we live a good life has perplexed philosophers and thinkers for over two thousand years. The Greeks were among the first to take on this question. The two “practical” schools of philosophy – Stoicism and Skepticism – produced a body of wisdom that, to this day, remains the most relevant and effective.
Of its many teachings, Stoicism offered three lessons that I find to be particularly applicable today. First, is the admonition to focus and take action on that which is in your control and to accept that which is not. Epictetus captured this notion brilliantly. “Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.” The second is that it is not the events themselves that cause our suffering. Rather, it is our beliefs about the events that cause us to be unhappy. Finally, Stoicism argued that emotions like anger, while understandable, ultimately do not serve us. Great thinkers like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius systematically exposed the fallacy that anger is the source of effective action. The latter powerfully demonstrating this principle through his own exemplary leadership of the Roman Empire.
Skepticism, like its counterpart Stoicism, believed that human happiness is predicated on a condition of relaxation about everything – a state of being that the Greeks called ataraxia. I describe this state as the ability to go to bed at night with a big smile on your face, an absence of anxiety, and an overwhelming sense of serenity. And to be in the same condition when waking up in the morning. The Skeptics believed that the key to achieving this level of relaxation is epokhe, which translates to “I suspend judgment.” The great Skeptic Sextus Empiricus described this sense of not knowing as follows: “To every account I have scrutinized which purports to establish something in dogmatic fashion, there appears to me to be opposed another account, purporting to establish something in dogmatic fashion, equal to it in convincingness or lack of convincingness.” This suspension of judgment does not mean merely throwing one’s hands in the air and simply accepting things as they are. As Montaigne would explain in his Essays, Skepticism does not mean that you aren’t immersed in the real world. It is just that you engage with the world with less attachment to being certain and with greater equanimity. And thus, you are that much closer to happiness and human flourishing.
Fast forward to the twentieth century, and we encounter Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian and philosopher. Among his many contributions, Niebuhr composed The Serenity Prayer in the 1930s. The prayer is commonly quoted as follows:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
It is time for a collective prayer. For us all to heed the words of Niebuhr and the teachings of the ancient Stoics and Skeptics to navigate the complexity of our crazy world with greater ease and grace. As you go forward this week, how do you find a way not just to accept but love the things you cannot change? At the same time, how do you take action on the things you can control from a place of ease and serenity, not anger and judgment, to make the world a little better?