“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .” Epictetus, Discourses
I ran across this quote from Epictetus the other day and reflected on how my awareness of it has grown over the years. I’ve been slower in the application of this quote – yet I’ve also come to realize that JUST following this principle dramatically increases personal freedom and contentment.
One of my major moments of truth happened on a dark and rainy night, in the parking lot of the neighborhood Harris Teeter after a LONG day of work. In my usual rush, I was storming out of the store trying to get home to make dinner, make sure homework was done and maybe, just maybe, have a minute to myself before I collapsed in bed. Rather go slightly out of my way to go down the ramp, I pushed my cart over the curb. I also tried to turn towards my car at the same time – because maybe if I cut the corners, I could save time. Right.
It was a big curb. Grocery carts are not built to be turned at full speed over a big curb. Before I knew it, my groceries were strewn all over the parking lot and I was on my knees putting groceries back into torn bags, tears streaming down my face, raining soaking my hair. And I was really, really pissed off. At the grocery store. For having a curb that big. All that time I expected to shave off with my little “let’s go straight to the car at Mach 1” turned into a huge delay and a worse mood than ever.
As I gathered up the mess – blocking traffic and making a lot of other tired people mad – I visualized the incendiary conversation I was going to have with the store manager about their damn curb. How dare they let this happen?
Then suddenly, for a moment, I was outside myself. I could see the ridiculousness of my thoughts, my actions, the whole thing. I CHOSE to go over that curb. Cleaning up my spilled groceries was a predictable consequence of MY choice.
It was a baby step in understanding that my response to what happens to me is a better source of power than blaming others.
In calling this a moment of truth, I would like to say the light bulb went off and forever more I lived in the “light”: The only person responsible for my response is ME! Nope. Wish it were so. I would have saved myself some serious headaches.
The truth of how we can learn to run our own lives is much more subtle. We have had a LOT of training in letting others run our lives. That is how we are brought into the world as children. Until adulthood, our lives are more like tubing on the water vs skiing.
This is an insight I got from a fellow skier, who is quite adamant that kids should learn to ski (or wakeboard) instead of being passive riders on a tube. Tubing is a ton of fun and doesn’t require a lot of skill. That’s why so many people make that their easy choice. In the case of tubing, the experience of the rider mostly depends on the boat driver. There is not much you can do on a tube to control what’s happening.
On the other hand, in water skiing, the boat goes straight and the skier carves their path. While there are parameters, like the length of the rope and speed of the boat, it’s the skier’s skill that determines the quality of the ride.
This subtle, yet very real difference carries through in our lives. We can either let others drive the boat (and decide our experience), or we can cooperate with others while carving our own experience. The choice is ours.
When we are kids, we don’t get many choices. In my house growing up, if Mom was cooking okra and beef tongue, that’s what I was going to eat or go to bed hungry. Most of the time the food was really good, so I’m not saying I suffered or anything. Ok, I did suffer when my parents insisted that I eat canned asparagus. That came right back up onto the table.
The point is this: we spend a good 20 years of our lives being trained and domesticated to live with others on this planet. It’s easy to forget where we have choices. We are told to always have a number 2 pencil for tests and the rest of our lives, that’s the only pencil we buy. Because it’s the “right one.”
This training turns into the rules that run my life – usually outside of my awareness.
One of these rules hit me square in the face while buying pencils in an art store. All the artsy pencils were either super hard or super soft. Art stores aren’t in the business of selling old-fashioned test-taking pencils. But those were the only ones I knew. It felt like I had a teacher standing over me, whispering in my ear saying “Get the Number 2 or I will fail you.” This stupid dilemma reflects the power of our unwritten rules. In this case, I had to say to myself “I’m a grown ass woman – I can buy whatever pencils I want!” in order to get myself to be ok with buying a different kind of pencil.
Over the years, I’ve discovered thousands of “rules” like that buried in my subconscious.
There are thousands more undiscovered. When I am present, the real Lynn shows up to deal with whatever is happening right now, in this moment. At my best, the old rules don’t have the power to determine my experience; only I have that power.
Anytime I feel stuck, I pause and ask myself if I’m getting gripped by an old rule. Often, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Where are your choices? Where are you letting the externals drive your internal experience? What rules are running your life? Where did they come from? Whose “voices from the past” come back to tell you what to do and who to be?
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