What we can and cannot control

Ryan Holiday regularly posts a philosophical note at The Daily Stoic. On this day he writes:

In 2021, the author Michael Lewis experienced just about the worst thing that can happen to a parent when his daughter was killed in a car accident. Asked about the grief of losing a child, Lewis first just said that it’s exhausting. “Every night I go to bed,” he said, “I’m thinking about Dixie Lewis. And every morning I wake up, I’m thinking about Dixie Lewis.” Then he added, “I can’t control that she died. I can’t do anything about that. All I can control is what her death causes, and I’m determined that it cause good things, not bad things. That’s what I’m focused on, is what does this cause? Like make sure it doesn’t cause more pain, see if it causes something else.”

The Stoics were not unfamiliar with this kind of horrendous grief. As Seneca received news of his exile, he was mourning the loss of his only child. Yet quite beautifully he channeled this pain into one of his most enduring essays, Of Consolation to Helvia, which he addressed to his mother–who herself was mourning what it would mean to perhaps never see her son again. Marcus Aurelius (see picture above) buried multiple children. He could have so easily been consumed by anger and devastation. Instead, he carried on, trying to be of service to the empire and to others.

When horrible things happen to us, our instinct is always to ask why me? Why this? Why now? It’s understandable, but it’s also irrelevant and unhelpful, because those questions have no answer. At least no answer that you can do anything about or take any comfort from. Besides, life has a better question. One it is constantly asking us, one that Michael Lewis to his credit has fully embraced: what will this cause? Will it put us out of commission or give us a new mission? Will it cause good things or bad things?

Ultimately, we don’t know why awful things happen…and there is so little we can do to prevent them. All we can choose is what we do after they befall us. All we can influence is what they cause…whether we can find a way to carry on and do good in response to what we have experienced.

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