The Real Terrible Thing

Epictetus could not have summed up Stoicism better than when he said: “It’s not things that upset us, but our judgement about things.” What he meant was that the world is neither positive or negative, it is simply objectively indifferent. A hurricane is a hurricane. Striking gold is simply discovering metal in the ground. It’s our opinions of those events which decide that one is horrible and the other is a blessing.

Of course, Epictetus was not saying there is no such thing as “good” or “bad,” at least as far as morality is concerned. While morality is a judgment, it’s an acceptable one when we apply it to actions that are within our control (that is, our own behavior). The trouble is that we can’t seem to keep these judgments contained to that area of influence. We make up categories and then try to organize the world into them…and are often miserable when fate doesn’t get the memo. 

Death, of course, is the ultimate example. It’s neither good nor bad. It simply is. Each of us is going to die. That’s a fact. It’s not really a positive or a negative fact, particularly since it carries with it the end of our ability to have an opinion about it. Yet that doesn’t seem to stop us from worrying about it, from spending a lot of time trying to decide what it means and whether we like it or not. 

How miserable this makes people! How many awful and stupid things they do to prevent it, from betraying their friends to missing out on enjoying life in misguided attempts to prolong their existence. As Epictetus said, “Death…is nothing terrible, but the terrible thing is the opinion that death is terrible.”

Hopefully you can chew on this a bit today. Death is not bad. It’s simply a fact. Indeed, everything is simply a fact. We’d be happier and more present if we could accept this. If we could stop fooling ourselves into thinking our opinions change anything (except to make stuff worse, most of the time). 

No judgment. No need to label or categorize. Just take life as it comes.

P.S. This was originally sent on September 12, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism. 

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