The Dichotomy of Control.

I’ve been reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. They are a collection of writings that were found among his possessions after he died. Though it’s often thought that he wrote solely to himself, as seems to be the case for most of the text, parts of it do seem to have a larger audience in mind.

Marcus Aurelius is one of the three big Stoic philosophers. Stoicism with a capital ‘S’ should not be confused with stoicism — Stoicism is a philosophical school of thought, while stoicism is emotional suppression. In my humble opinion the word stoicism is a pollution of the definition, but I digress.

There’s a Stoic practice which I really admire called the Dichotomy of Control. Essentially, it separates all events or actions into two groups: external events and internal events.

External events are things that happen to you, or the ways that you happen to your environment.

Internal events are things that happen inside your head: thought processes, lines of reasoning, thoughts, emotions, etc.

Next, Stoicism acknowledges that all external events are outside of your control. You may think that the ways that you happen to your environment are inside of your control – choosing to eat food, choosing to read a book, choosing to put on clothes in the morning. But, keep in mind that you could drop dead before doing any of those actions. You could misplace your book, run out of food or otherwise get interrupted. An earthquake could swallow you up. None of that is inside of your control, and none of it is predictable.

By extension, the only thing you can control are your internal events — your reaction to external events.

Say, for example, your manager yells at you. You are not in control of whether or not that happens; somebody else made the decision to yell at you. Regardless, you have two options. The natural, instinctive reaction is to get angry, upset, or otherwise be in a state of emotional distress (regardless of how well you internalize it.) What happens to you is not in control, but how you respond to those circumstances is in your control.

You are in control of whether or not you react to negative circumstances with negative or positive emotions. If you operate instinctively and react negatively to negative circumstances, you are compromising your own happiness and emotional state, and to what end? What is the benefit of choosing to be angry or dissatisfied with your circumstances?

By extension, you can also choose to respond positively to negative circumstances. This is not often the instinctive or natural state of being, but if you choose not to be negatively affected by positive circumstances, you can navigate frustration and disappointment with tranquility and peace-of-mind.

You could leave this life at any moment, for any reason. Memento mori. Thank God for what you have been given, make peace with your circumstances, and choose to be happy with the life you’ve lived.