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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Controlling control, part 1

Mr. Roboto (Styx) is "just a man whose
circumstances went beyond his control".
(c) A&M Records.
Many people have "control issues" but the "issue of control" runs a little deeper, and a little wider. The ancients realized the link between our approach to control and our happiness a long time ago...

Here in Houston I attended the small group called the Houston Stoicism Meetup, and the issue of control was discussed. In our society it's common to be told things like, "well at least you have your health" and this is seen as wise counsel. We also think that people who are deeply attached to their friends and family are 'well grounded' and 'down to earth' - they "know what's important in life". We think this way because we are comparing them to people who are attached to the pursuit of money, fame, sex, drugs, and so on. Yet, many ancient philosophers (East and West) would say that all of these people are vicious (vice-fillled) and foolish. None of them are on the road to a contented, flourishing life of deep happiness because they all harbor unhealthy attachment.

These attachments spring from a failure to understand and appreciate what we control, and what we do not control.

In our individualistic society some often speak of responsibility. Responsibility is a good thing, but this can lead to delusions about how the world works. It's easy to realize that we can't control the weather, we can't control acts of nature, and we can't control what other people do. But we might often think we can control our careers, our health, or relationships, our wealth, and more. Responsibility-preachers will tell us these things are in our power and if we just 'work harder', 'be more careful and thoughtful', 'plan ahead', and apply ourselves responsibly we can have whatever we want. Those of the more mystical persuasion might even try to convince us that we can control our good fortune by 'wishing really hard'.

Certainly our efforts can effect the chances of various outcomes, and we should apply them steadily. We are very fond of thinking we have "some control" over things. But the Stoics, at least, didn't deal in "some control". They said that you either control something, or you do not - period.

This position may seem a little odd to us. Perhaps we chalk it up to those primitives not having our sophisticated subtle look at things, but this would be a ludicrous mistake of ego and ignorance.

Why did they approach control in such an absolute way?

[Continue to Part 2]

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