Yours and Mine

it is silly and pointless to try to get from another person what one can only get for oneself. (Epictetus, Discourses I.9.31)

The stoic philosopher Epictetus encapsulated his teachings in a nugget of wisdom:

Always remember what is yours, and what belongs to other people, and you won’t have trouble. (II.6.8)

Peace in life boils down to understanding what is in your power to control and what is outside of your control. If you can control it, then it doesn’t merit stress. If you cannot control it, stressing out about it will not change it anyway. This is what it means to recognize the difference between yours and mine: what is yours to change is yours to change — and everything else belongs to other people.

The person who confuses what belongs to him with what belongs to others finds himself in a state of constant anxiety: “He doesn’t know the difference between his own possessions and others’.” He lives in a condition of chronic panic, tossed about by the supposed mistakes, misdeeds, and mismanagement exhibited by other people. The world is a place that is continually being ruined by others. However, Epictetus is convinced that if this person could simply understand the difference between what belongs to him and what belongs to others, “he would never be thwarted or disappointed. Or nervous.” (II.13.8)

Epictetus’ juxtaposition of the one against the many takes on a couple of different dimensions. He points out that it is “silly and pointless to try to get from another person what one can get for oneself.” For example, my honour is something that belongs to me alone. I cannot derive my honour from others. Well, I can try to construct my own honour based upon what you say about me, but the outcome is always the same — I will live in anxiety and fear as I wait for you to open your mouth and establish my honour or dishonour! My honour is mine, not yours. Confusing the ownership of my honour is bound to make me a slave.

Since I can get greatness of soul and nobility from myself, why should I look to get a farm, or money, or some office, from you? I will not be so insensible of what I already own. (I.9.31-32)

This leads Epictetus to an audacious conclusion: “no one is ever unhappy because of someone else.” (I.9.34) Despondency, agitation, aguish — these are never the faults of other people, but of one’s own self. If other people’s actions and words dictate your emotional wellbeing, then Epictetus has a ready diagnosis: you have confused what belongs to you with what belongs to others.

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