Born a slave in A.D. 55, the venerable Stroic philosopher Epictetus knows a thing or two about living daily life under the thumb of a massive Empire. He observed daily life, which for him was often fraught with difficulty. In Rome, he lived and taught a philosophy around living virtuously until A.D. 94 when Emperor Domitian banished philosophers from the city. In exile, he continued to teach up his death in A.D. 135.
No matter what happened in his life, or in the world around him, Epictetus walked a path of happiness, fulfillment, and tranquility. He documented ninety-three critical instructions for us all to live by. Each making up a modern day manual aptly titled, The Art of Living – a time-tested way of life that represents much of the schools of thought found in the writings of his most famous student Marcus Aurelius, as well as the early Christian Church fathers, Buddhism’s Dhammapada, and Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.
For those of us who are seeking happiness in the midst of all that is going on in our world, and especially in our country right now as people are demanding their freedoms to be exercised, let’s look to the words of Epictetus, who reminds us that “Happiness can only be found from within.” He writes,
“Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is one by disregarding things that lie beyond our control. We cannot have a light heart if our minds are a woeful cauldron of fear and ambition. Do you wish to be invincible? Then don't enter combat with what you have no real control over. Your happiness depends on three things, all of which are within your power: your will, your ideas concerning the events in which you are involved, and the use you make of your ideas.”
Epictetus tells us that happiness, peace, and tranquility can always be found inside you. Too often we are blind and unable to see it because we compare ourselves and our situation to someone else’s social status, professional titles and degrees, or by their bank accounts, big homes, fancy clothes and expensive gadgets. The rise of social media (comparing how many likes or views our post get) and the insidious spread of reality entertainment (keeping up with belittling and betraying others for sake of getting ahead) are just two examples of how we have allowed others to set the bar and define “success” for us.
Putting celebrities, political leaders, or any other people above yourself suggests that you believe they are free of problems or that they are necessarily happy. What does that say about yourself? And how does that make you feel better? Epictetus said, “To be bewildered by appearances will only make you doubt yourself.”
Have you ever experienced that before? I have. In fact, I still struggle with this whenever I am around family. I often judge myself by what I think is their success and ability to be successful. I forget that I define what success looks like for me, just as they define what it is for them. I forget that the happiness, peace, and tranquility (the true riches of the world for me) that I seek is right there inside of me.
Nothing but myself can define me, or my actions. Nothing holds me back from being the success I set out for myself but me. “For your own will is always within your control,” states Epictetus. “You will needn’t be affected by an incident unless you let it.”
It might seem like the world is crumbling around you, but is it really? Is your world only health? Or material possessions? Or religious liberties? We are more than just a body, or things or thoughts. We are made in the Divine image of love and goodness. We are made good from the start. But it’s our thinking and comparing ourselves to others that keeps us from living into who we truly are meant to be. And sadly, it’s also what allows others to exert control over you and dictate who you are to be.
“The real essence of good is found only within things under your own control. If you keep this in mind, you won’t find yourself feeling falsely envious or forlorn, pitifully comparing yourself and your accomplishments to others.”
To borrow from Janice Bussing, a friend and a wonderful spiritual life coach of mine, “Today is a new day to be the best version of yourself.”
Epitetus, The Art of Living, new interpretation by Sharon Lebell. Harper-Collins: 1994, pp. 16, 26.