Some Things Are Up to Us; Some Things Are Not

A Sermon by Tony Allen

Tony Allen’s interest in the Classical world began while browsing in his bookstore in Barrington and discovering a book containing the first-century equivalent of articles on living well; that is, a 2,000-year-old reprint. At church, Tony was a member of the Prudential Committee for many years. He served as president, treasurer, and clerk. He assists his wife Irene at the Atrium Bookstore on Sundays during the regular church year.

Sermon Text

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Sermon Text

I’m Tony Allen. My talk is how some things are up to us; and some things are not.

More than ten years ago, when I was still working at my bookstore, I discovered a little white paperback with the title: Seneca On the Shortness of Life.  Seneca’s point is that, contrary to popular opinion, life isn’t too short; it’s long enough if used well.  Nature has given us enough time for the highest of achievements – but we humans waste a lot of that gift.

And he makes a broader point: the issue of dealing with things that are up to us.  People don’t think twice about wasting time, which they do control, on pointless activities.  Conversely, people become dependent on things outside their control, things that aren’t up to them.  This leads to disappointment and grief.

So why did this get my attention?  Let’s look at our “Joys and Sorrows” moment, a standard part of our Sunday service. One of my joys is the good relationship we have with our son, his wife and their children – who are, of course, our grandchildren.

My sorrow is the continuing estrangement of our other child.  It’s directed at our entire family, but much of it seems to be based on her perception that, as a father, I wasn’t there for her.  I can get very defensive about this; this changes nothing.

It was a great surprise, then, to find that reading Seneca and others like him is a comfort. They talk about meeting a wide range of challenges, along a continuum that on one end is the hurt in relationships gone awry.  But it is a continuum that moves through many concerns, work responsibilities, or money stresses, or health problems. Or, the concerns resulting from the daily news.

Seneca, who lived in the first century of the Current Era, was a Stoic.  And here I want to make distinction between the Stoic school of antiquity, Stoic with a capital ‘S’, and stoic with a lower case ‘s’ that we think about today.  Stoic with a lower case ‘s’ is the one with the stiff upper lip and suppressed emotions.  Stoics of the ancient world worked at developing what they called “the art of living,” to produce a way of life that was satisfying for individuals and beneficial to communities.

The Stoics first appear in ancient Athens, meeting at a colonnade called the Stoa, but it’s in Rome, years later, that we meet the Stoics best known to us.  Seneca was a philosopher, advisor to an emperor, and member of the socio-economic 1percent.  Epictetus, on the other hand, was brought to Rome as a slave – his name means “acquired’; he won his freedom and became a prominent teacher.  Marcus Aurelius was the great Roman emperor.  A statue of him on his horse is at Brown behind Sayles Hall.

It is Epictetus who provides the title of my presentation, who said: Some things are up to us and some things are not.  This is the dichotomy of control, or, the Stoic Fork. Things that are up to us, by which he means, things within our complete power, are our thoughts, opinions, values and beliefs. Only we can change them; no one else, nothing else.

Not within our complete control, not under our complete power are many things.  The loud party that got louder after I went to bed.  The driver that cut me off on the highway.  Or, more importantly, my health, my property, my friends and family members.  These are not under my complete control.

Epictetus says: The biggest mistake we make is to think that things outside our control, are under our control.  If we think things outside our control are under our control: “We’ll be unhappy, we’ll be troubled, we’ll find fault both with the gods and with human beings.”

But he has a solution.  All we have to do is regard our own as being our own. And make sure we don’t think that we own what isn’t our own. If we know this, if we comprehend this, we’ll be fine. “No one will ever be able to harm you.  No one will get in your way.  No one will even annoy you.  And you in turn, won’t blame others.  You won’t make enemies.  You won’t do anything you don’t really want to do.”

So we should learn to be independent of things outside our control.  A tall order; Epictetus has a suggestion. Work slowly toward the goal of reducing your dependence on things outside your control.  For example, don’t get too worked up about the behavior of one your slaves. So the slave spills some oil, or walks off with a bottle of your wine; don’t sweat the small stuff.  To quote Epictetus: “Just say to yourself, Such is the price at which equanimity is bought; such is the price that one pays for peace of mind.”

Stoics had no problem enjoying the pleasures of life, including health, wealth, friendship, love, reputation, good food and drink. But not one of them is under your complete control, any of them can disappear. This former slave emphasizes that we shouldn’t be “enslaved” by them.

If we aren’t enslaved by them, then, we will be free of the fear, anger, and despair that comes when they are lost.  One of the most extreme examples of how this works is that of Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist who survived Nazi death camps and then wrote about it in Man’s Search for Meaning, still in print 60 years later.  And there is Rear Admiral James Stockdale.  In mid-career, Stockdale studied Epictetus at Stanford University.  Later, in the Vietnam War, he was shot down from his Navy plane and held for seven years in the torture camp known as the “Hanoi Hilton.”  Writing about it in Thoughts of Philosophical Fighter Pilot, Stockdale credits Epictetus with saving his life.

This brings me to the Stoic archer. There are many things over which the archer has control.   He, or she, can select the right bow and arrow.  He can practice diligently.  He can strengthen his arms.  He can control his breathing.  Then he aims, and shoots.   At this point, no control: A breeze comes up.  Something gets in the way of the arrow.  The target moves. Whether the arrow hits the target is not up to him.  But archer is a Stoic archer. He, or she, has prepared for this from the beginning because it is a part of this event that isn’t under his control.

Seneca offers a similar lesson with what is known as the Stoic Reserve Clause.  Seneca says: You should say to yourself, “I will set sail unless something happens.  My business will be a success, unless something unforeseen occurs.  This is why we say that nothing happens to a wise man contrary to his expectations.  His first thought has been that something might obstruct his plans.”

All this tells me to be clear about what I can control and what I cannot. To do my best, but to be prepared if I don’t hit the target.  That I will hit the target, unless something happens.

In the case of the estrangement in our family, how does all this give comfort?  First, the Stoics tell me to remember that what is up to me is how I handle it: My thoughts, opinions, values, and beliefs.   What isn’t up to me is the outcome.   This is curiously optimistic.  It means there is always something I can do, since there is always something that is up to me. Neither Viktor Frankl nor James Stockdale believed themselves to be without choice.  Even under dire conditions, there was always something that was up to them.

So, in facing estrangement, once the arrow leaves the bow, the outcome is not up to me.  What is up to me is to be a loving dad.  The Stoic fork and the Stoic archer provide an approach to the “art of living” that is both rational and practical.  This approach reduces our anxieties and frees us to do things we can actually accomplish, to do things that are up to us. The Stoic asks us to examine every concern to see if it relates to things that are within our power.  If it relates to anything that isn’t, we should be ready to respond, That’s not for me to worry about.  The outcome is not up to me. I’m not going to waste my time and energy fretting about it.

But this approach goes further.  The Stoics very much believed that we are all part of an interdependent web of existence.  They dare us to do things that are up to us, things that are within our power. And to do them now.