Dichotomy of Control

Adesh Kumar Mishra
5 min readOct 9, 2022

Then isn’t it better to do what is up to you — like a free man — than to be passively controlled by what isn’t, like a slave or beggar?

  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Photo by 青 晨 on Unsplash

Great roman emperor Marcus Aurelius discusses the dichotomy of control in his famous work ‘’ The Meditations”.

Where he discusses how to lead a happy life, this article discusses the philosophy of the great roman king and ways to live a happy and less miserable life.

All of our life revolves around the desire to have something or the fear of losing what we have. It could be related to finding a job or the fear of losing it; it could be related to finding the love of our life or the fear of losing it.

When we direct our efforts in directions where we do not control the process or outcomes, it is more likely to induce anxiety and fear in the mind as the outside world is hardly in our control.

People may take actions that hurt or make us feel unpleasant and seem irrational, but their actions are hardly in our control.

When we let others take control of our minds, the only thing we become is a disappointment. Like willingness to have a romantic relationship or get respect from another person often leads to disappointment, agony, and worry. Often, we face misfortune or face circumstances that are aversive to us.

The nature of people is fickle and uncertain; being nicer doesn’t mean that we will meet good people. Sometimes, we encounter ill-intentioned people, and their actions hurt us mentally or physically. While it is impossible to control their behavior or actions, developing the fortitude to handle them is definitely in our control.

So, do not expect people to be nicer to you, help, or care for you. Keep your mental faculty strong to handle uncertain and undesirable outcomes. The mind that seeks certainty in this uncertain world is prone to misery and disappointment. Disappointments are often the outcomes of our aversions, things we do not wish to happen.

The other reason for the misery is the fear of losing what we expect or have. Something that we wish not to change. Like having a well-paid job, a healthy physical body, or a loved one. The paradox is that anything we want to keep earlier did not exist, be it a romantic relationship, a well-paid job, etc. These things have emerged from a change which is a most certain aspect of our environment, yet we resist changes that are undesirable or do not want to happen.

While there is no certainty that things work according to us, it is most likely that seeking certainty of outcomes may lead to misery.

Embracing fate and living in conformity with nature saves our time, energy, and effort that we can direct to lead a fruitful life.

Add nothing of your own from within, and that’s the end of it.

  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

In the era of a hyperconnected world, we often find ourselves part of several groups, be it yoga groups, job-related groups, or other groups. When we become part of the group: often our thoughts do not match with the majority. Every group has its own identity, known as collective identity: it can overwhelm our individuality when our thinking is different from the rest. Often, we face humiliation or feel ignored or unimportant in the group. Somebody may even crack a joke on us that can be insulting. Marcus Aurelius says that though we can not change people in the way we want them to be: but shield ourselves from their actions. All the emotions we feel because of humiliation are the outcomes of our reaction to that action. Controlling our reactions is definitely in our control. If you do not react, nothing has happened. He says in his famous quote, “ Don’t feel harmed, and you won’t be.

Ancient stoic philosopher Epictetus discusses the concept in detail in his famous work “The Enchiridion”. Epictetus states that we humans are the slave of our desired to be liked, respected, and valued by others. When we cling to things we can not control, it is an inevitable cause of misery. Clinging to things and holding them for too long harms our minds and bodies.

Even if we try with all our vigor and effort, it is not up to us to retain or control the things we possess or desire. A mindset that we own things creates misery when those things are lost or gone. The best way to see the outside world that is not in our control would be by imagining everything as borrowing. Everything we possess has been borrowed, and whatever we have been trying to achieve is also a form of borrowing. Borrowing doesn’t mean we stop caring for others but do not get attached to them whether they stay or leave.

Some things are in our control, and others are not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever our actions are.

  • Epictetus

In modern times, with the rise of social media, the desire to be liked or valued has gained enormous importance in our life. We post our pictures, videos, and other stuff in the hope that others would like them and appreciate our profile. The problem with this approach is that as some people start appreciating or liking: your desire to be liked will only increase with time. Whether someone will like our posts or not is up to us. It only increases pressure on ourselves to get validation from others and rarely helps improve our actions. Binding our happiness with others’ actions is not a good idea to live a happy life. We should only be worrying about the things that are up to us and are perfectly under the control of reason. We must use our reasoning faculties to differentiate between the things that are in our control and the things that aren’t. Leaving things that are not in our control, frees us from misery and saves our time, energy, and efforts to pursue other things that are in our control.

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