Mark Blasini


Darkness and light


A few posts ago I talked about how I disagree with the Stoics' conception of control. Control, for me, is not about making a categorical separation between the internal and the external, between what's within my control (i.e. my thoughts, actions, beliefs, emotional reactions) and what's outside my control (i.e. other people's thoughts, actions, beliefs, emotional reactions; environmental events).

Rather, control, I wrote, is a matter of degree and perception, meaning that what is important for our happiness is increasing our sense of control in or over the situation we're in and not focusing maniacally simply on what's "within" our control. When you increase your sense of control over your situation (yourself and your environment and relationships), you become happier; when you can't increase it, or if it decreases, you become miserable.

This understanding begs some insightful questions: If I focus on what I can't control in my situation, won't I just be making myself miserable? And if I can increase my sense of control by focusing on what I can control, won't I be making myself happier? And if so, wouldn't it make sense to just follow the Stoics' understanding of control then?

To answer to these questions, we have to return to our discussion of uncertainty and risk. For the Stoics, the reason we focus on the internal over the external is because the external represents the realm of uncertainty, of risk, of failure. Tying our happiness and behaviors to a potential result of which there is huge uncertainty about whether it will occur is a recipe for eventual disaster, because life has a way of defying our expectations, hopes, and dreams.

On the other hand, when we tie our happiness to what's "within" our control (our thoughts, actions, opinions, emotional reactions), then any factor that would prevent a desired result from happening seem to disappear, provided that result is within my control. For example, if you want to be honest, sharing what's on your mind, then nothing can prevent you from doing that. You may not be able to control other people's reactions to your honesty, but you decide whether you will produce an honest statement or not.

In other words, the Stoics' conception of control is a way to deal with the uncertainty that characterizes life itself. The internal represents the realm of certainty; the external represents the realm of uncertainty. To eliminate uncertainty, you must learn to ignore the external.

On the surface, this strategy seems reasonable. But in reality, there is no clear distinction between what is internal and external. Our thoughts, our opinions, our emotional reactions, our behaviors - these are largely products of our upbringing, our culture, our external environment.

In turn, we are often unaware of the effect our actions, our thoughts, our emotional reactions have on others - on our spouses, our colleagues, our children. What we do, say, and think has a huge influence on our relationships and our environment.

From this perspective, the solution to the problem of uncertainty and the inherent risk of life is not to ignore the darkness (i.e. the "external") and focus on the light (i.e. the "internal"). That is the equivalent of ignoring how we influence and impact others and failing to understand how we are impacted and influenced by others - two areas where we need more light, more certainty, not less.

Rather, the solution is to embrace the darkness - the uncertainty and risk of life - while at the same time attempting to shine some light into it - that is, to increase our understanding of the uncertainty.

Taking the example of honesty, this would involve

  1. Understanding that what we think is honest may actually have an unconscious motive behind it (e.g. defending our ego). In this sense, the statement may actually not be honest.
  2. Understanding not simply that our "honest" statement may not have the effect we desire, but how and why it may not. If our goal is not simply to make a statement, but to actually influence the other person's thinking, then we must understand the psychology, the thinking, the values of the other person.

To return, then, to the questions before on focusing on what I can control and not focusing on what I can't control, the better question is: do I understand what I can or can't control? Have I shone some light into the darkness of my situation?

There are no constants in life. We are shrouded in darkness. No clear internals or externals. Our best attempt at living a happy, fulfilled, peaceful life is not to close our eyes from this darkness, but to peer into it and brighten it up a bit.