Epictetus’ promise: if you truly understand the difference between what is and what is not under your control, and act accordingly, you will become psychologically invincible, impervious to the ups and downs of fortune.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
-Reinhold Niebuhr, circa 1934
The sentiment behind the prayer is very old, found in 8th-century Buddhist manuscripts, as well as in 11th-century Jewish philosophy. The oldest version I can think of, however, goes back to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Active in the 2nd century in Rome and then Nicopolis, in western Greece, Epictetus argued that:
We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible. The former include our judgment, our impulse, our desire, aversion and our mental faculties in general; the latter include the body, material possessions, our reputation, status – in a word, anything not in our power to control. … [I]f you have the right idea about what really belongs to you and what does not, you will never be subject to force or hindrance, you will never blame or criticise anyone, and everything you do will be done willingly. You won’t have a single rival, no one to hurt you, because you will be proof against harm of any kind.
‘To Be Happier, Focus On What’s in Your Control’
by Massimo Pigliucci and edited by Nigel Warburton, AEON
“…Life is too short to not make people happy.”
-A taxi driver in New York City
So Much Happiness
Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952
It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records . . .
Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.