“Sickness is a problem for the body, not the mind – unless the mind decides that it is a problem. Lameness, too, is the body’s problem, not the mind’s. Say this to yourself whatever the circumstance and you will find without fail that the problem pertains to something else, not to you.”
I really like this chapter of the Enchiridion because we know that Epictetus was lame and also a slave. It is thought that he became lame from having his leg broken by his master when he was young.
This sheds a whole new light on this chapter, because it comes from a person who managed to live their entire life with an obvious physical problem, and also managed to endure and overcome slavery.
I can clearly imagine Epictetus being picked at by other boys when he was young regarding his leg, and managing to use Stoic acceptance to understand that this wasn’t a problem.
While we live in more politically-correct times, we still face the same issues with physical presentation, even if sickness is less of a problem today than it was 2,500 years ago.
Today both men and women are far more objectified, and the modern media paints this unattainable image of how the perfect man or woman should look like, and this is so far removed from reality that it is essentially impossible to achieve.
Yet, due to continuous exposure, society begins to think that this is how people should look. This leads to a whole host of eating disorders, depression, over-exercise, and other unhealthy habits.
It’s strange that a society we place so much value on externals such as the shape of our bodies or the symmetry of our faces. Our minds are the real gems in the world. The most advanced bio-machines in existence, we still manage to leave machines in the dust with our logical jumps and intuition.
And yet, that is not celebrated half as much as a pretty face that may last for a decade or two.
But the core message of this chapter is that problems are something that happen in the outside world, not to us. Our bodies count as the external world. While they are part of us, there are more important things that make up who we are, namely our thoughts and actions.
Think about it. I might cut off your hand today, but after some readjustment, you would essentially still be the same person.
So we should go ahead with out daily lives and remember that problems are caused by our desires, and our lack of aversion. The only thing we should care about is making sure that our thoughts and actions are inline with nature, and for the rest we can let the chips fall where they may, because they won’t cause us any problems.
Someone, somewhere, once said that idiots blame everyone else for their problems, smart people blame themselves, and wise people don’t blame anything.
This is quite a radical break from our current state of affairs, where we are eager to point fingers to other, or even to to blame ourselves and deal with shame and regret. It’s only by learning to focus on the fact that problems are only problems because we think about they are problems.
A great exercise to do is to stop and think about the vastness of the universe and of time, and think about all the people that came before us, and the people that will live after us. All their problems now don’t appear to be real, even if back then it all seemed so important.
This exercise adds perspective to our lives, as it reminds that we are not half as important as we think we are, and that not before long everything we have done, said, and thought, will completely disappear from the records. In a way, this is about accepting that ever-morbid subject, death.
In other words, life is short, so make sure that the problems you deal with a real ones, not imagined.