The Stoic concept of knowing the difference between what you can change and what you can’t may be useful when you are dealing with tolerations – those aggravations and annoyances you have been putting up with and putting off dealing with.TheExceleratedLife.com
The Car Fire
When I was a young man, I confess I was not very responsible. I learned to ignore and put up with many things instead of dealing with them. And looking back on that time, that behavior showed up as a haphazard life, with no direction and little control.
For example, when I dropped out of college and went to work full time, I bought a new car – a Volkswagon 412 station wagon. It was very, very nice. But I did little to take care of it. It stayed filthy most of the time, with overflowing ashtrays and piles of beer cans in the back floorboard. Over the years, I ignored the minor problems and put off having maintenance work done, and the car deteriorated.
Eventually, I began to take steps to turn my life around. I enrolled in classes at the local community college, working toward a degree in data processing. Still, I continued to tolerate problems with my car – particularly an oil leak that got increasingly worse.
One morning, I pulled my car into the college parking lot, got out, and walked toward my classroom. A man stopped me and pointed back to where I had parked. “Is that your car?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered. “Well,” he said, “it’s on fire!”
I looked quickly around and saw flames shooting from under my car, with fiery drops of oil pooling under the engine. The man ran in to call the fire department, while I removed my outer shirt and tried to extinguish the flames.
The fire department came and put out my car, but the damage was done. I never drove that car again.
By tolerating small issues, I allowed them to grow bigger. In time, the accumulation of small problems that could have been dealt with easily grew into an enormous problem – and I lost my car.
Things We Can Control And Things We Can’t
This might be called the “First Law” of stoicism: There are things we can control and there are things we cannot. As Epictetus wrote in the Enchiridion: “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.” [Epictetus]
How does this idea fit with the practice of dealing with tolerations?
Tolerations are annoyances, irritations, and problems you are putting up with or putting off, condoning or disregarding. These could range from minor issues to a major problem you are ignoring, hoping it will go away. Let’s consider the things we are tolerating in light of the Stoic “First Law”.
Looking at the two concepts tells us that some of the things we are tolerating are within our control, but others may not be. In order to effectively deal with them, we must recognize each type. To borrow from The Serenity Prayer, we want to have “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Dealing With Things Tolerated
The original steps for dealing with tolerations, which I adapted from Talane Meidenar and Thomas Leonard, are:
- Take a sheet of paper and list everything you have hanging over you, all those things you look at and think, “I need to fix that.” Get them out of your head and on paper.
- Set aside a Saturday or Sunday and knock out as many of the items on your list as you can complete. Or schedule a certain time period each day to do one or two until the list is done.
- Some things will be too big to do in one day. Break them down into discrete actions and work these into your schedule.
- You may have things on your list that you don’t know how to address. (First, be sure it is something you can control. If not, practice acceptance.) If it is under your control, don’t worry about it right now. Deal with the things you can. Clear them from your mind. Solutions for the other things will come to you.
- Eliminate the toleration 110%. The extra 10% is to locate and deal with the source of the annoyance. “Otherwise, you’ll be swatting down the same tolerations over and over. That’s not progress.” [Leonard]
- After you’ve marked everything off your list, reward yourself. Go out to dinner or to a movie or any other small treat you enjoy.
These instructions assume the list of things you are tolerating includes only those things over which you have control. But is that true for you and your list? Let’s consider step 4 more closely.
What Can We Control?
The things under our control include our thoughts, our responses, and, to quote Epictetus, “in a word, whatever are our own actions.”
When you look at the things you are tolerating, I suspect that most of the so-called “minor” annoyances are things you can take care of, either do them yourself or pay to have them done. Keep in mind that “minor” simply refers to the difficulty of resolving the issue. All tolerations, no matter how small, waste valuable time and energy.
These minor tolerations — squeaky doors, a dirty car, clothes that don’t fit properly, a disorganized file drawer, needing an oil change for your car, building a savings cushion, dirty windows, a cramped living space, etc., etc. — are all within our control. We can certainly deal with these types of tolerations.
What Is Not Under Our Direct Control?
While we can control our thoughts and our actions, the things not under our direct control are basically everything else including other people and even our own bodies. As you look at your list of things you are tolerating, be aware of things you’ve listed but which may not be under your control. This typically involves things other people are doing, things such as a spouse’s messy office, the controlling style of a boss, the negative attitude of a co-worker, poor customer service from a vendor, a coworker who criticizes you, a neighbor’s dog that poops in your yard.
Are there things partially under your control? While your body is not under your direct control, i.e., you could fall ill, be injured in an accident, or die, there are steps you can take (eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, exercising) to care for yourself and improve your situation. While “being overweight” may not be a toleration you can directly control, you can influence the factors that lead to a healthier body.
Similarly, many of the things you are tolerating from other people are not directly within your control. But you do have the control to set boundaries around behavior you will and will not accept. And you have control over what you think and how you react or respond to these annoyances.
Dealing With Tolerations In Light Of Stoic Practice
Looking at the things we are tolerating in the context of the Stoic practice of differentiating between what we can and cannot control gives us a different perspective, but addressing them is still necessary
Deal with those you can. Once you have your list, decide how you can address each item and begin eliminating those over which you have control.
Let it go. Are you tolerating some things that you could let go of? Your grandmother’s silver tea service that needs polishing and which you will never ever use? Those books you’re never going to get around to reading? “Friends” that constantly criticize you and others? Let them go.
Improve it. You may face some situations, relationships, and environments that you cannot directly control and that you can’t completely let go of. Is there a way you can improve it to make it easier to accept? Can you lessen your exposure? Change the way you think about it? Get someone’s help with it?
Take a different approach. Get on with replacing a missing button, cleaning a disorganized house or garage, replacing scratched sunglasses, washing a dirty car, having car repairs done, etc.
BUT . . . if you have an issue worthy of writing Dear Abby — a friend with whom you’re no longer compatible, a mother-in-law that constantly finds fault, a spouse who is self-centered and doesn’t offer support in return, or a spouse who remains upset over something that happened 20 years ago — your methods of dealing with these tolerations may be different. These are things that are out of your direct control. However, you can remove yourself from the situation or, at the least, change how you think and respond to them.
What We Can Control And What We Can’t
These are in our control:
Keeping possessions clean, tidy, and in good working order.
Keeping our living environment clean and organized.
And, “in a word, whatever are our own actions.”
We can also do what we can to keep our bodies healthy. And we can do all the things we can to keep our relationships healthy. But these are not completely ours to control.
These are not in our control:
rude or incompetent drivers
stuff that happens in the daily news
And, these are not necessarily tolerations. In the last analysis, tolerations, as we understand them, are the things you can deal with, so deal with them. The rest you must learn to accept and let go. That is embracing the Excelerated Life™!
Dealing with the things you’ve been tolerating is one step in creating your Excelerated Life™, a life of flourishing and well-being and a life of meaning, purpose and service.
Epictetus. Enchiridion And Selections From The Discourses Of Epictetus; Translaged by George Long. Digireads.com Publishing, 2012
Leonard, Thomas. The 28 Laws Of Attraction. New York: Scribner, 1998