Epictetus warns us that it is more rational to fear that which lies in our own power–our choices–than what lies outside of our power–chance. People are prone to do the opposite, to over-estimate their ability to make wise decisions and instead fear the unknown. But why fear that which is going to happen anyway? Rather, the Stoic sage says, it is better to have a healthy fear of making a bad decision because that is something you can actually have control over–which is something that should truly frighten us all because we cannot even begin to understand the depths of our own ignorance and ineptitude.
Two paths open before you: the one tempts you with complex ideas, with challenges, and with a sense of true accomplishment; the other offers tranquility, relaxation, and calm. You know which path you will take, but also know where that path leads: you will not be tranquil, or relaxed, or calm. You will, instead, make yourself sick with stress and worry and fear of all that is going wrong, with all that is out of your control. There is nothing wrong with ambitious goals, but when those goals erode your wellbeing, you must at some point ask yourself why you continue to walk that path. The simple life never hurt anyone, but it has seldom made them noteworthy either; the complex life, however, has taken many before their time. But how many of their names do you know?
There is nothing more treacherous than your own mind. It is the secret enemy that you carry around every day. It tells you to desire what is not good for you, or to deny yourself what you truly need. For something so rational, your mind is prone to the most irrational flights of fancy and the most insane of self-defeating talk.
The world around us is noise. Noise that is sound, but also noise for each of the other senses too. There is too much to see, to say and to taste, to touch, to smell. It is exhausting.
To truly be tranquil, you need to find a solitary space where your senses can rest. You do not need to live there. Indeed, you would go insane if you were under-stimulated as much as you will when over-stimulated. But without a space, physical and mental, to retreat to in solitude, you also have no place to rest up and recharge.
The sages among us have the ability to carry their solitude with them. This is a good goal, that you do not need to retreat into your home to find that space but that you can carry it with you to have it there whenever it may be needed.
Never let your plans be so rigidly set that they cannot be adjusted. Just as failing to plan sets you up for failure, so over-planning inevitably leads to failure as well. Nothing ever goes just right, and if you haven’t allowed room to change, you are like glass: likely to shatter because there is no flexibility in you!
The scope of time from beginning to end is so vast that the mind cannot begin to comprehend it. The thought of such eternity may humble you, but it’s just as likely that you’ll easily dismiss the infinitude of your own smallness because it is so difficult to grasp. But there is no need to think of the distant Big Bang, or the formation of the earth, or the dinosaurs, or the Romans to understand the shortness of your own breath. You don’t need to think about the world a hundred years ago, or the years before your own birth. Think only on how far gone this morning already is and you will realise that you are no longer the same person you were even a few short hours ago. If this does not make you realise that life is fleeting and your time short, nothing else will.
The saying goes that you can learn a lot about a person by the way he spends his free time. Strive, then, to be worthy of a good judgment (from yourself and others). There is a difference between wasting time and rest: the one is the country of people going nowhere, the other of those with plans. Even your leisure should feed your purpose in life.
It is important to remember that other people are not merely extensions of yourself, as though they are an arm or a foot. Recalling this will help you to be patient with others and, more important, to learn from them how to be a better person yourself.
Whatever your relationship to another–teacher/student, father/son, stranger/stranger–acknowledge them as an individual and, being the wiser, meet them where they are and go at their pace.
You cannot make them be what you want them to be, so the wise man will instead make himself who that person needs him to be for as long as he needs to be. In this way you can lead them out of darkness rather than rail at them from your place in the sun.
All life is rhythm. Is is any surprise, then, that our art seeks to find rhythm in words? But there are good rhythms and poor, that is, pleasing and cacophonous, and there are the mediocre mascaraing as the good. How does one tell the one from the other? It takes an expert, but they are ever in short supply–and even more so in this day and age.
Questions are like arrows released from a bow or bullets fired from a gun: they are most effective when able to pierce beneath the surface of the target. If they fail to do so, we call them misses and failed shots. If they sink in, they do real damage: arrows and bullets to bodies, questions to ignorance.