“I am an old man now, I have known a great many troubles. Most of them never happened.” – Mark Twain
The concept of the future can seem like an inevitable, inescapable idea. The future is always coming, and if a problem appears in the future, it can feel like an encroaching threat that you just can’t get out of the way of. This is where anxiety enters. 500 years ago if I was anxious about catching enough fish to feed my family, I would receive a physiological response from my body to give me anxiety and stress. This would provide me with enough (albeit unpleasant) motivation to continue fishing the extra 1-2 hours in order to get what I need. If I stress about making a fire that lasts for the whole night and doesn’t get out of control and swallow me in my sleep, I will experience stress and anxiety as a motivation to make absolute sure that I place rocks around the fire to keep it contained, and give it plenty of wood to keep it burning as long as I need it to. This is where stress and anxiety make sense. They give immediate signals to the body that something needs to be accomplished right now.
Where things get warped and miscommunicated is when you observe a human being in the 21st century experiencing anxiety about office politics and a manager or boss that they just don’t get along with. When you focus on this problem, your body still gives you the same outdated physiological response that kept your ancestors alive. Something is wrong! Here are motivational chemicals to solve this problem right now. The problem here is that the anxiety serves no purpose. The problem cannot be solved. It is out of this person’s control, and yet his brain is still flooding his body with the stress chemicals to solve it right now. This person will then feel the effects of anxiety where they begin to dread the future and curse the present out of frustration for not being able to solve this problem.
The stoics tell us “do not suffer imagined pain”. This statement can tell you two things about the world. Firstly, that the stoics do not recognize the future is a real and tangible idea. In reality, the future actually does not exist. All that exists is the present. The future exists only in the mind of humans as an estimation for what we think may happen at some point. But it is important to remember and maintain that none of it is actually real. The second is that the brain is actually quite bad at differentiating time. It’s why we are able to remember things that happened years prior and still feel the pain of the situation, or likewise if we imagine something stressful in the future, we feel the anxiousness of the situation. This is what the stoics mean when they tell you not to imagine your pain. The pain is in the future, an imaginary place. Seneca also tells us “we suffer more in imagination than reality”.
So all of that sounds excellent in practice, but how exactly are we supposed to tell ourselves this information when our brains are in full panic mode about the rent due in 2 weeks? The answer is to practice another core tenant of stoic philosophy. Stoicism focuses very heavily on the idea of control. What is under your control is your responsibility. What is NOT under your control is not your responsibility. The more time you spend pondering this concept, the more you will come to realize that the only thing that is absolutely, positively, without a doubt under your total control is your mind, and to some extent your body. Everything else is not. And so, knowing this information we can now come to see the world from the lens of things you can control contrasted to the things you cannot. You cannot control outside factors, you cannot control how people treat you, and you most certainly cannot control the outcome of events. What you can absolutely control is how you react to each of these situations. How you conduct yourself. According to the stoics, this is the only thing you should ever concern yourself with.
So our short answer we arrive at is quite simple: if you cannot control it, refuse responsibility for it. Is there a problem happening on Thursday? Today is Monday. I cannot control this problem, at the moment it is not my responsibility. I’m off the hook. What you should absolutely not do is suffer the problems of Thursday on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and then finally Thursday. Remind yourself, the future isn’t real and neither are my problems.
By: Bryce Miller, M.S., Ed. S.