Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.
Is there something seriously wrong with me?
I was alone in a thunderstorm in the woods of Transylvania. The storm had confined me to my 3′ x 8′ tent for the last twenty-five hours. The rain wasn’t stopping and I was beginning to worry. It had only been four hours into my planned seven-day trek when the thunderstorm hit. It was then that I had learned my rain gear was not up to the task of keeping me dry in a thunderstorm. I was forced to set up camp or get soaked and risk having to call off the entire trek for fear of contracting hypothermia.
My goal was to walk over 100 kilometers from the city of Brasov to the Transfagarasan, a famously scenic highway that weaves through the Fagaras Mountains in the Southern Carpathians of Romania. On day of my trek however I was stuck in the woods outside a small ski town less than 10 kilometers from Brasov; the only thing I was exploring was the inside of my very small, lime green tent.
I had no choice but to wait out the storm. Instead of embracing the situation (ample time to myself and plenty of good books on hand to read) I occupied most of my time by worrying. Would the weather relent? What if there was another storm when I got higher up? Would I have enough food and fuel to make it to the Transfagarasan still? What am I doing out here? Maybe there really was something wrong with me?
On the morning of the third day the rain stopped and I broke camp. That afternoon I passed through the cobbled stone streets of Rasnov, its stony citadel standing silent watch over the red-roofed Saxon houses now surrounding me. I resupplied on food and checked the weather forecast. Another storm was expected to hit the mountains 3 days from now. I couldn’t find anywhere to get better rain gear and I was still unsure whether I’d have enough fuel to wait out a second storm.
Late that afternoon I caught the train west to Zarnesti, a small town situated at the base of the Piatra Craiului Mountains which I needed to cross before I could climb into the Fagaras Mountains beyond.
The moment when a collection of numbers and squiggly lines I’ve been studying on a map transforms before my eyes into towering monsters of earth and rock has always instilled within me a deep sense of awe, respect and fear. It was no different as Varful Turnul (1,911 meters), the Piatra Craiului’s northern most peak, came into view. What was different was a nagging concern that I wasn’t prepared. I’m familiar with the pre-climb jitters: a hard to pin down nervousness in anticipation of formidable challenges that inevitably await me on the mountain. This felt different. It wasn’t ambiguous. I already know there were problems with my plan: the weather forecast, my insufficient rain gear, questions about my fuel supply. I hoped these concerns would stay on the train as I walked off the platform at the Zarnesti train station.
That night I camped at the base of the Piatra Craiului Mountains. In camp I was bitten by a German Shepherd and discovered that I had lost my compass. Things didn’t seem to be improving.
I started on the trail early the next morning hoping to make up lost time. I was still determined to reach the Transfagarasan. I made good time and near 1:00 that afternoon I arrived at my first peak of the Piatra Craiului, Varful Ascutit (2,121m).
It was a gorgeously clear afternoon and I could see the city of Rasnov to the northeast and the outskirts of Brasov creeping around mountains beyond that. The Fagaras Mountains dominated the skyline to the west. I walked south along the rocky ridge line towards La Om (2,237m), the range’s highest peak. I underestimated the difficulty of the section and it took me twice as long as I had expected. By the time I arrived at La Om it was already 6:00 PM.
A crowd of backpackers had collected near the small shelter near the summit. The clouds were beginning to roll over the mountain top, blotting out the sun, and leaving us all in a misty haze. According to my map, the next shelter was a 800m descent down the much steeper, exposed west face of the mountain. In three hours the sun would set behind the Fagaras Mountains.
I had already been hiking for ten hours but I knew I needed to push on if I’d have any hope of making it to the Transfagarasan before the storm rolled in. The uneasiness I had experienced on the train returned stronger than ever as I began to lower myself through the clouds and down the craggy peak of La Om.
It would be one of the most harrowing descents I’ve ever undertaken. At times the trail would seem to suddenly vanish; steel chains bolted into the mountainside providing the only indication that I was to descend down terrifyingly vertical slabs of rock before reuniting again. Other sections of the trail deteriorated into loose, rocky scree which gave way underfoot. Small avalanches of rock tumbled in front of me before disappearing over a ledge only feet away. My mind was showing signs of fatigue: twice I lost the trail and had to scramble back up the face of the mountain in search of it.
My thoughts darkened as the sun sank in the sky towards the Fagaras Mountains. If I ran out of light I wouldn’t be able to continue safely until morning. I was no longer just worried —I was scared.
It was after dark when I finally arrived at the shelter. The descent had taken over three hours. Still wired with adrenaline, I sat outside and tried to calm myself down with a chocolate bar and a plastic cup of cognac. The moon began to peak out over the ridge, giving the limestone rock a pale, ghostly glow. In the distance I could see the bobbing light from the headlamps of two hikers coming around the side of the mountain. They looked like a pair fireflies in the night.
I had already decided to come down off the mountain the following day. I was deeply disturbed by the risks I had taken. I had left little margin for error. As I sat there staring in awe at the mountain I wondered what had gone wrong —why had I risked my life that day at the top of La Om?
“Our most important choice in life, according to Epictetus, is whether to concern ourselves with things external to us or things internal.” writes William Irvine in his excellent book A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.1
“Most people choose the former because they think harms and benefits come from outside themselves … If you ask most people how to gain contentment they will tell you that you must work to get it. You must devise strategies by which to fulfill your desires and then implement those strategies.” says Irvine.
Epictetus, a prominent stoic philosopher in ancient Rome (AD 55 – 135), advocated that we adopt the opposite approach: instead of seeking contentment in changing the world around us we should seek it in changing ourselves.
How might one go about doing that? By changing our desires says Epictetus.
THE DICHOTOMY OF CONTROL
In his Enchiridion, Epictetus claims that everything in life falls into one of two categories: things that are up to us and things that are not up to us. According to Epictetus, our opinions and desires fall into the category of things that are up to us. Our reputation or whether the sun will rise tomorrow are examples of things that aren’t up to us.
Here’s Irvine again:
“Epictetus points out it is impossible that happiness and yearning for what’s not present should ever be united … Your primary desire says Epictetus, should be your desire not to be frustrated by forming desires you won’t be able to fulfill. Your other desires should conform to this desire and if they don’t you should do your best to extinguish them … If you succeed in doing this, you will no longer experience anxiety about whether or not you will get what you want nor will you experience disappointment on not getting what you want. Indeed, says Epictetus, you will become invincible. If you refuse to enter contests you are capable of losing you will never lose a contest.”
But wait, is Epictetus saying we should never embark on any endeavor we aren’t 100% certain of succeeding in? Wouldn’t that require that we refrain from most of life’s daily activities?
This would be a misinterpretation of the stoic philosophy argues Irvine. To help us better understand what Epictetus was driving at Irvine suggests a third category: things which we have partial, but not full control over. He uses the example of a tennis match to illustrate. In a tennis match we have control over performance which is causally linked with the outcome of the match. But there are other factors outside of our control which will also influence the game’s outcome: our opponent and how the game is officiated for example. Therefore we have some but not complete control of the outcome of the tennis match.
How are we to deal with this third category? Should we only play tennis with our grandmothers (assuming they weren’t one-time world champs)?
IT’S NOT WHETHER YOU WIN OR LOSE BUT HOW YOU SET YOUR GOALS
Facing this question, Epictetus would likely remind us that we have complete control over the goals we set for ourselves. Therefore says Irvine, when a stoic concerns himself with things where he has some but not complete control, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals.
“Thus his goal in playing tennis will not be to win the match (something external over which he has only partial control over) but to play to the best of his ability in the match (something internal over which he has complete control). By choosing this goal he will spare himself frustration or disappointment should he lose the match. Since it was not his goal to win the match he will not have failed to obtain his goal as long as he played his best. His tranquility will not be disrupted.”
And what better way is there to win a tennis match than by playing to the best of your ability?
Setting our goal as winning the tennis match doesn’t increase our chances of winning either. In fact we might even decrease our chances argues Irvine.
“If it starts looking early on as though we are going to lose the match we might become flustered and this might negatively affect our playing in the remainder of the game thereby hurting our chances of winning. Furthermore, by having winning the match as our goal, we dramatically increase our chances of becoming upset by the outcome of the match.”
In other words: internalizing our goals gives us a lot of upside with little or no downside.
UPPING THE STAKES
Maintaining our equanimity in challenging situations is no small promise and that alone makes the Trichotomy of Control an incredibly valuable tool. However I can’t help but wonder if Irvine may have missed an even more powerful reason for applying the trichotomy in our lives —one which may have become more apparent had his imaginary stoic been engaged in a riskier activity than tennis.
What if it has the power to save our lives?
In choosing the externally focused goal of reaching the Transfagarasan, I had done more than just sacrifice my mental tranquility: I had risked my life.
Had I realized that my true goal was to enjoy my time in the mountains —something internal that I had full control over— I’d have been in a much better position to heed the warning signs that mounted over the course of my trek and adjust my plans accordingly. Not only might I have saved myself countless hours worrying and enjoyed my time in the mountains much more, I might have realized that descending La Om that evening was a bad idea.
I don’t think you have to be climbing a mountain for Epictetus’ and Irvine’s teachings to resonate with a similar profundity though. As human beings we’re naturally goal setting creatures —often organizing our entire lives around our goals. This of course also affects the lives of those we love around us. Not only can the trichotomy of control help us achieve tranquility in our lives, but it might also help us take a sober look at our goals and recognize when they might be leading us down our own dangerous, mountain paths.