The serenity prayer is often used in Alcoholics Anonymous to recite the values of accepting what we can’t control and taking responsibility for what we can.

It reads as follows:

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.

For those familiar with the works of Epictetus, this will be a familiar principle.

In the opening words of the Enchiridion, also called the handbook, Epictetus says the following:

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 own actions.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1


The Dichotomy of Control:

That passage from Epictetus describes the fundamental principle of the Dichotomy of Control. Some things are up to us, and others are not.

This is a foundational rock of Stoic philosophy and one that has some of the greatest practical benefits to practicing Stoics.

In essence, if our happiness is dependent on the outcomes of things outside our control, our wellbeing becomes tied to fate and chance. This is not a resilient way to live.

If, however, our happiness depends upon our character, behaviour, thoughts, and actions, then our wellbeing is ours to decide. Through discipline and virtue, our happiness becomes resilient.

I like to split the dichotomy into two areas:

1. Learning to accept what we can’t control

Many people feel a great deal of emotional distress when the world around them doesn’t go their way.

This could be failing to get a job, a crash in the stock market, rain on their wedding day, or even traffic on the way home from work.

However, when we learn to accept the things in life we can’t control, we lessen the impact these things have on our well-being, and we become happier and more resilient in the process.

The dichotomy of control turns resistance into acceptance.

2. Taking responsibility for what we can control:

In the Enchiridion of Epictetus, he continues on to help clarify the dichotomy further. It says:

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1

Here Epictetus explains that when we take responsibility for what is our own and accept the things that are not our own, we rid ourselves of the negative emotions caused by getting this distinction wrong.

When we become aware of this distinction, it becomes our decision whether or not to take responsibility for that which is our own.

If we choose to do so, we hold the keys to our own happiness.

As Epictetus says:

To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.

Discourses, 1.1.17

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