2000 years later Epictetus is still teaching

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I got run over by an avalanche, I was in shock. I was surprised I didn’t remain dead, buried under the snow. Then the pain overwhelmed me and all I could see is red.

When I woke up in the hospital I was in shock again. My neck was in a brace. I was lying in a bed with an incredible amount of machines and pumps hooked up to me making weird beeping sounds. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t open my mouth. I saw a tube running out from under my nose and figured that had something to do with my inability to talk. I remembered my jaw being smashed to pieces, not responding to my instructions, flapping in the wind on the side of the mountain the day before. And figured that had something to do with my inability to speak.

I couldn’t cry out for help to a nurse therefore I just laid in the bed confused with my morphine thoughts. I felt terrible. I didn’t know it at the time but I was drowning in self pity.

About a month later I stumbled upon Charlie Munger’s 2007 commencement speech to the USC Law School, while reading in bed with my jaw still wired shut. When Munger said to invert your situation and think like Epictetus and your duty was not to be submerged in self-pity, but to utilize the terrible blow in constructive fashion, I was stunned. It was at that moment I realized self-pity had plagued me my whole life. Munger was telling me to change my thinking. The light was turned on for the first time.

I knew who Charlie Munger was but I’d never heard of Epictetus. I supposed he was a Greek or a Roman god or something. It didn’t matter to me at the time, the only thing that mattered was not to be submerged in self-pity but to utilize the terrible blow in constructive fashion. I’ve read that paragraph hundreds of times. It’s helped me greatly.

I was way wrong about Epictetus. He wasn’t a god or an emperor, he was born a slave in ancient Rome. He was a cripple with a leg that may have been intentionally broken by his master. Though he became educated, he lived a simple life in poverty. Epictetus knew how vicious life could be. He figured the best way to deal with life was to focus on what he could control, the “internals”, which were his thoughts and actions. Epictetus realized he could not control the “externals” or what happens to you in life, this he figured was determined by fate. Since there was nothing he could do about it he did not waste time worrying about it.

Whenever you grow attached to something, do not act as though it were one of those things that cannot be taken away, but as though it were something like a jar or a crystal goblet, so that when it breaks you will remember what it was like, and not be troubled.

So too in life; if you kiss your child, your brother, your friend, never allow your fancy free rein, nor your exuberant spirits to go as far as they like, but hold them back, stop them, just like those who stand behind generals when they ride in triumph, and keep reminding them that they are mortal.

In such fashion do you too remind yourself that the object of your love is mortal; it is not one of your own possessions; it has been given you for the present, not inseparable nor for ever, but like a fig, or a cluster of grapes, at a fixed season of the year, and that if you hanker for it in the winter, you are a fool.

If in this way you long for your son, or your friend, at a time when he is not given to you, rest assured that you are hankering for a fig in wintertime. For as wintertime is to a fig, so is every state of affairs, which arises out of the universe, in relation to the things which are destroyed in accordance with that same state of affairs. – taken from Epictetus II as translated by W. A. Oldfather

I’d always figured that my health and my body were my possessions, and in my control, I grew attached to these things. I never figured they could be taken away. I let my fancy free rein and exuberant spirits go too far. I’d mask my failings and self pity with obnoxiousness and arrogance. I took everything for granted, I excelled at being a jackass. The avalanche hit the reset button on my life. Or it ended one life and started another. It forced me to change the “internals.”

This change of thinking is what has helped me so much. Focus on what you can control, which is only your thoughts and actions. After the avalanche, when I realized I’d been wallowing in self pity my whole life, Charlie Munger and Epictetus were giving me a way out.

Being depressed that I had gone through life broke and lonely or feeling sorry for myself from injuries from the avalanche, these were all my thoughts, the “internals.” These thoughts were all in my control, I could change them if I wanted to.

I couldn’t change the unfairness that had happened to me, injuries from an avalanche that occurred within the ski area boundaries on a slope that had been opened to the public, that was “external.” But I could change the way I thought about the event, not to be submerged in self-pity but to utilize the terrible blow in constructive fashion, the “internals.”

This simple change in thinking was huge, it made life worth living. It was not, and still is not easy for me to think this way. Maybe it is for other people, I don’t know.

For me it takes work, it takes practice, but it is worth the effort.

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