Thanks to Stephen Polmar, who has been studying the Stoics, I cracked open my Epictetus, one of the great Greek philosophers, and I found this quote:
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our actions.”
I have been pondering this quote for over a week. While I may not agree with Epictetus that we have no control over our bodies (oh, if that were only true, I would have such a great excuse for my overindulgences) or property (I find it quite liberating to dispose of things), I do agree with his conclusion that we have very little control over what we cannot do anything about. It’s the serenity prayer really: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.
There is so much now that is completely out of our control: the pandemic, racial injustice, our political dystopia and let’s not forget the weather. Yes, we can control how we react to each of these maladies, but ultimately, at least in our individual lives, we have very little direct control over when this pandemic will weaken or who will be elected president.
And yet, the first part of Epictetus’ wisdom informs the second. Our control over opinion, pursuit, desire and aversion can, when joined with others of like minds, actually change the direction of what is beyond our direct actions. Our collective efforts towards creating racial justice, our labors to get out the vote for our values, even in how long this pandemic lasts, depends on what we can do collectively, as a people of faith.
I hear and feel your fear and anxiety over the state of the world. If we let our imaginations run to the dark side of cable news, we may find ourselves overwhelmed and despondent. But if we adjust our lens slightly and look first at what we can control and apply what we can control to the work of others, our fears may lose their grip upon us.
What if, every day, we recited the serenity prayer and then went about doing a small something towards the greater good? I am willing to bet that after a week of this practice, you will feel more control in your life and therefore, more hope in our time. As we gather back together, virtually, in person or through our collective spirit, we can and will change the course of the world. Remember, for every horrific headline, there are a million acts of kindness.
Most of all, remember that you are truly not alone. Reach out to me, to your friends, to this congregation and, in so doing, bring a small amount of control back into your life. Sorry to say, we still can’t do anything about the weather. Not yet anyway.
Yours always, Rev. John