Reducing Stress, Increasing Joy: The Stoicism of Epictetus

I am in a new state, in a strange part of the country, with three suitcases and a backpack. I don’t have a lot of money, and all of my options seem confusing. Yesterday was a rough day, and today is shaping up to be more of the same. I am a weepy, worrying mess today.

So what do you do? Where do you turn? As a Pagan who is facing an adventure fraught with both excitement and fear? I turn to my faith. To my gods. To fate, destiny, synchronicity and magical coincidence. I wrote awhile back that to pull myself from my crisis of faith I felt I had to lash myself to the mast like Odysseus and trust I would not be dashed against the rocks. So far I haven’t been dashed, but I’ve been bruised a bit. And like Odysseus I have done my best to plunge forward and meet my challenges, including learning to get around the Twin Cities on my own.

On one of these tentative forays I found myself in a Barnes and Noble. And on the bargain rack was a new interpretation of the philosophy of Epictetus: The Art of Living. It called to me, and I could not resist. I moved here with only 3 books, and I crave the comfort of having them around me. This book has been quite a comfort, although comfort isn’t really a word you often associate with Stoic philosophy.

This small volume boils Epictetus down to the basics. There are things you can control, and things you cannot. Happiness comes from recognizing this, and from letting go of that which you cannot control while taking charge of the things you can control. Do well, expect the best, do not worry about what you cannot change, and master yourself. If this philosophy sounds familiar, it is because it is echoed in the Serenity Prayer and in Thelemic philosophy, as well as Wiccan ethics.

It has always been my firm belief that all we require ethically, morally and spiritually exists within Paganism. We simply haven’t built a culture of references, a framework of large enough proportions. Most of us are not well-versed in classical studies, in ancient philosophy, and the wisdom of ancient cultures. We stumble along and grasp what we can, build what we need if we can, and try to fix our theologies and philosophies unaware if the answers we are looking for already exist.

So as I sit here worrying How am I to live? and How do I cope with this huge change in my life? I am finding my answers in Epictetus:

It is within our control not to be disappointed by our desires if we deal them according to facts rather than by being swept away by them.

We are ultimately controlled by that which bestows what we seek or removes what we don’t want. If it’s freedom you seek, then wish nothing and shun nothing that depends on others, or you will always be a helpless slave.

Understand what freedom really is and how it is achieved. Freedom isn’t the right or ability to do whatever you please. Freedom comes from understanding the limits of our own power and the natural limits set in place by divine providence. By accepting life’s limits and inevitabilities, and working with them rather than fighting them, we become free. If, on the other hand, we succumb to our passing desires for things that aren’t in our control, freedom is lost.

I’m not going to claim to be an absolute Stoic. I plan to spend part of today crying and grieving, just give my sorrow a healthy vent so it is out of my system. Epictetus would frown on that. I don’t care.

Then the rest of the day I am going to focus on what I have control over. I can pray. I can make offerings of incense. I can meditate and still my mind. I can go for a walk and fill my lungs with fresh air. I can not expect any special favors or help to come my way as I chart my course, but I can remind myself to not turn down help out of stubborn pride. I can recognize my limitations and make all my plans within those parameters rather than hoping for something beyond my abilities. I can deal with the facts of my situation, and not the emotions those facts evoke. I can work pragmatically, putting aside emotion. All of this will reduce my stress, increase my joy, and make me more effective in rebuilding my life.

Like Odysseus, I can recognize that I am mortal, that I have limitations, that I am no more special, important or unworthy than anyone else. Knowing this I can push forward towards excellence, even if it means lashing myself to the mast and trusting the current will see me through.

About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • PhaedraHPS

    “Freedom comes from understanding the limits of our own power and the
    natural limits set in place by divine providence. By accepting life’s
    limits and inevitabilities, and working with them rather than fighting
    them, we become free. If, on the other hand, we succumb to our passing
    desires for things that aren’t in our control, freedom is lost.”

    This, my dear, is an excellent definition of following one’s True Will. (Too many Thelemics think True Will is “True Whim.” I’m not the first to say that ;-)

  • T. Thorn Coyle

    Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are two friends I return to on a regular basis.

  • Anna Greenflame

    Having survived a car crash in August, which left me mostly intact but unable to work (broken wrist, massage therapist), these words ring very true in a personal way. So does the concept of turning to our Pagan ancestors for inspiration and wisdom. Right now I’m exploring Neoplatonism and am as giddy and happy as a three-year-old in a splash pool. Many good wishes on your day.

  • Zan Fraser

    Hey Star- Continuing good luck with your move to Paganistan; have you ever read Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full? (It’s set in your old home of Atlanta.) One of the characters is a guy named Conrad, who gets unjustly imprisoned, and discovers the philosophy of Epictetus. It begins to speak to him much as you describe; you might want to check it out (being Wolfe, it’s really good, but also massively long- I find I can skip thru, Conrad section-to-Conrad section). Cheers!

  • John Beckett

    I really like your last paragraph.  True, you are mortal and no more special or important than anyone else.  But all of us who live on this continent have ancestors who immigrated here, whether on foot or by ship or by more modern means.  They did what you are attempting to do now – and they were mortal and not particularly special or important either. 

    But those ordinary folks did some extraordinary things.

    “Knowing this I can push forward towards excellence”.  Keep doing what you’re called to do while you do what you have to do.

    Blessings to you and your extraordinary journey.

  • Laura M. LaVoie

    This is lovely. Thank you for sharing.

    Also, on a personal level – every great adventure I have ever had started with me wondering what the hell I had just gotten myself into. I’m glad you’ve taken the time to recognize what you and and can’t change you’re an amazingly resourceful person, Star. You’ll do just fine.

  • Soli

    For all my mystic leanings, I am a huge fan of the Stoics. Helps to keep me grounded.

  • Apuleius Platonicus

    Bless you Star for writing this. It will serve as a beacon and an example to others who face difficulty, and that means all of us, of course! Personally I prefer the less condensed “Discourses“, but one can never, ever, go wrong with Epictetus.

  • Melissa DeGenova

    You know that synchronicity you were talking about, like finding the one article that says just what you needed to hear?   Thanks for that.

  • JustMe

    Epictetus has been one of my main referents for some time.  I cary a slightly different copy of the Enchiridion with me and read a page or two every day. It is (all too slowly) making me into a better person. 
    Epictetus works for everybody, because he is so common-sense and so basic.