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Don’t Make This Lesson More Painful

Daily Stoic Emails

We get so used to having our way. We live in a time when the skies have been conquered. When so many diseases have been vanquished. When technology allows us to do and have things that were inconceivable even just a generation ago.

Consequently the eternal battle for our attention, between the things we control and the things we don’t, becomes even harder for us to wage. The lessons and warnings the Stoics have issued to us across the centuries about this perpetual internal fight, begin to feel like they belong to a different age, like they are meant for people who are fundamentally different from us.

This is how skewed our collective sense of self has become. We have totally unrealistic beliefs about what’s in our control and what isn’t. And it has made the ‘art of acquiescence’, as Marcus Aurelius called it, even more difficult to practice, let alone perfect.

“One of the many lessons that one learns in prison,” Oscar Wilde writes in his haunting essays De Profundis, “is that things are what they are, and will be what they will be.” Born into a life of privilege and pleasure, complemented by staggering brilliance, Wilde had grown quite accustomed to getting his way, to doing what he wanted, to having things the way that he wanted. There in prison, sentenced to two years hard labor for the crime of being gay (of being himself, essentially), Wilde was faced with the ‘unavoidable reality,’ as we discussed recently, that he had to learn how to practice acceptance. He had to figure out how to come to terms with his fate and circumstance. The lesson was as painful for him then as it is for us now. And it gets all the more painful the more entitled and spoiled we get.

We must remember that for all the privileges and advancements of our time, for all our brilliance and resilience, things still are what they are and will be what they will be. There will always be an entire universe of things that remain out of our control, and the more comfortable we get with that fact now…the more pain and surprise we’ll save ourselves later.