“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things. Thus, death is nothing terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death, that it is terrible. When, therefore, we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved let us never impute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own views. It is the action of an uninstructed person to reproach others for his own misfortunes; of one entering upon instruction, to reproach himself; and of one perfectly instructed, to reproach neither others or himself.”
-Enchiridion by Epictetus, Stoic
We all look at the world through perspectives. These perspectives are crafted on a myriad of factors from the context to our pasts, our beliefs, our prejudices, our socialization, our education, our understanding of the world and ourselves.
Epictetus stated “men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things”. The thing itself is. We impute meaning. This was written nearly 2000 years ago.
We think ‘death is bad, because life is good’. Except of course when life is painful and filled with suffering, then we see death as a gift. This is exactly the purpose of ‘right to die’ legislation.
This hinge in perspective is the difference between great suffering and gratitude, between anger and acceptance.
Most of us would say there are situations in which death is a great injustice. We should be upset, throw blame, and be angry. Epictetus states this as a view. In fact, the example he gives of Socrates execution is one that many would consider an ‘injustice’.
Epictetus points out that death is death, it is only terrible inasmuch as we decide it is. Further, we have no control over it beyond our view of it. Thus, if we alter our view of death, we solve our distress.
If we wish to be undisturbed, Epictetus advises us to look to our own views. Then ultimately, to endure our misfortunes without blaming ourselves for a failing or others for a cruelty. This is the place of peace.
- When we are dealing with negative thoughts and emotions, we can overcome them by investigating and shifting our ‘view’ of the situation or item in question. This may be belief work, or analyzing our thoughts.
- We can recognize the situation just is. We can be aware that the suffering is due to the negative interpretation we are placing on the situation. This is under our control. We can label the negative view simply as ‘negative view’ when it arises in our minds. This will allow us to see it for what it is.
- We can practice allowing whatever has upset us by saying ‘this is here’ or simply saying ‘allow’ when you find yourself struggling against the situation or when you see negative thoughts.
Do we wish to be undisturbed? Epictetus is teaching us how to find peace. He is instructing us on how to be indifferent to those things outside of ourselves and beyond our control.
The question is whether we wish to be undisturbed.
There are instances where it makes sense to follow his advice and shift our perspective. This may be instances such as a personal slight, an off comment, or someone cutting us off.
However, there may be instances such as an egregious violation of rights, or a genocide. Are these instances we wish to be undisturbed?
Does being undisturbed mean we don’t act against things we see as wrong in the world?
Would this idea still be of value in such serious instances for allowing us to maintain objectivity, while still taking action?
This is very similar to the notion of allowing in Buddhism. The idea is we add suffering onto situations with our judgment and negative interpretations. For example, if we have a cold, we make the cold worse by being angry about it.
Thus, allowing is the practice of simply ‘allowing the bad thing to be’ and not adding negative emotional content.
Enchiridion by Epictetus http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html
When Pain is the Doorway, by Pema Chodron https://www.soundstrue.com/store/when-pain-is-the-doorway-3166.html