Responsibility and Response: Why Our Choices are the Only Thing that Matters

“People have forgotten this truth,” the fox said. “But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Every day we tell ourselves stories about why things are the way they are. We spend large chunks of the day lamenting our circumstances, mulling the possible culprits responsible for the unhappy place we find ourselves, or worrying about what we fear is coming in the future. We hurt ourselves when we do this.

The problem with this way of spending our time is that it distracts us from the present—the tasks we could be doing now, the choices that we alone have to make, the decisions to act that are the essence of participating in the good life. We can never be happy when we abandon our responsibility to our choices in the here-and-now. Our choices govern our responses, and our responses are the entire leverage that we have in each moment. Most of what happens or will happen in life is beyond our control, as the Stoics like to remind us:

“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, 2.5.4–5

Taking responsibility for our choices in each moment is not easy—it’s often a thorny patch that we maneuver clumsily. But with concerted focus on three areas—managing our thoughts, dispelling our fears, and modifying our behaviors—we can become responsible for the “rose” that is our life. All the other troubles we encounter are things we must keep in their proper place. We can’t allow ourselves to wallow in complaint and abandon the work at hand. Marcus Aurelius had great advice for us on this subject:

“That cucumber is bitter, so toss it out! There are thorns on the path, then keep away! Enough said. Why ponder the existence of nuisance? Such thinking would make you a laughing-stock to the true student of Nature, just as a carpenter or cobbler would laugh if you pointed out the sawdust and chips on the floors of their shops. Yet while those shopkeepers have dustbins for disposal, Nature has no need of them.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.50

Marcus’ image of the artisan’s shop and the dustbin is an apt one for us. Nature has an efficient way of handling all things, but sometimes, we have to get out the broom and do some cleaning! In fact, the whole purpose of philosophy, as the Stoics understood it, was as a way of cleaning up our own psyches (souls). Seneca put it best:

“When philosophy is wielded with arrogance and stubbornly, it is the cause for the ruin of many. Let philosophy scrape off your own faults, rather than be a way to rail against the faults of others.”

Seneca, Moral Letters, 103.4b–5a

Taking 100% responsibility for cleaning up our own mess instead of engaging in pointless attempts to find other culprits is a powerfully liberating act.

Jack Canfield the bestselling author of Chicken Soup for the Soul and The Success Principles, bases his entire system on these Stoic ideas. He teaches that we must begin by taking 100% responsibility for our lives, recognizing that we don’t control events but only our responses to them, and that the entire leverage we have on the outcomes in life lies in these responses. Oprah Winfrey found this particular teaching very powerful.

Marcus Aurelius, too, always returned to this same power of mental housekeeping we all possess:

“Understand at last that you have something in you more powerful and divine than what causes the bodily passions and pulls you like a mere puppet. What thoughts now occupy my mind? Is it not fear, suspicion, desire, or something like that?” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 12.19

When we free ourselves from the illusion of control over events, stop complaining about the outcomes of our lives, and cast off our fears of what might happen in the future, we can focus on the present moment and the powerful choices that we have to change our thinking and our behavior. It takes courage and self-control to tame fear, but as Epictetus taught, this is the only way we keep the fortress of our soul intact:

“No, it is events that give rise to fear—when another has power over them or can prevent them, that person becomes able to inspire fear. How is the fortress destroyed? Not by iron or fire, but by judgments . . . here is where we must begin, and it is from this front that we must seize the fortress and throw out the tyrants.” — Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1.85–86; 87a

This is what Pierre Hadot called “the inner citadel.” We are its watchmen and watchwomen!

Our choices and responses are our only responsibility. Choice is the discipline that makes the garden of our lives bloom.

Stephen Hanselman is the co-author of The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living.