“Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather, wish that everything happens as it actually will” — Epictetus
For those who don’t know, the ancient philosophy of Stoicism is all about finding peace and happiness regardless of your external circumstances. It does this by re-framing the way you look at events in your life.
Epictetus was one of the great Stoic philosophers and all of his teachings were around how to live a good life without suffering too much mental anguish.
The above quote, if understood, is one of his more insightful. He actually ends this quote with the words “then your life will flow” but I cut that part off because I find it understates the value of this idea. There is a lot more peace to be gained from this idea than just a life that “flows”, whatever that means.
For example, imagine that something goes wrong in your life. Say your car breaks down on the way to work and you are stuck in the rain waiting for a tow truck. It’s easy to dwell on the negative here: thinking about being late for work, thinking about how expensive the repairs will be, wishing you had gotten that strange sound checked out instead of putting it off. But all of this suffering doesn’t actually help you improve your situation.
Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, no amount of self-loathing will put it back in.
So what if we flipped this around. In what ways is having the car break down actually a good thing? Try to imagine reasons why you would wish for this to happen.
Perhaps you badly needed a moment to pause and be with your thoughts and this situation created that. Or maybe challenges like this are good for you because they allow you to practice Stoicism and work on easing your anxious tendencies. You can reflect on how you were fortunate that the car broke down here in a relatively safe location instead of somewhere dangerous or in a situation that would have put your family or loved ones at risk.
Even in a frustrating experience like that, there are good things for you to find.
Hope that your dreams won’t come true
The other valuable piece of this quote is that it opens you up to accepting what your life has in store for you.
“Wish that everything happens as it actually will” means that you are deliberately wishing that your dreams do not come true. Why would anyone ever do that?
Here’s a thought experiment:
Try to remember what you thought your adult life would be like when you were 10. For me, it involved living in my hometown and being able to buy whatever lego set I wanted — even the really expensive ones (read: greater than $20). Big dreams.
How about when you were 16?
Your dreams from then probably weren’t as misguided as they were at 10, but probably still missing a lot of the bigger picture. Maybe you were wishing for a car and the freedom it would bring. Maybe you were dreaming of making it on your own in a big city.
Okay, now how about your dreams from when you were 20?
At this point you’re probably groaning “okay, I get it! My dreams didn’t match reality!”
And you’re right. All of our dreams of past ages didn’t match reality — even though we thought they did at the time. When we dreamed we left out a lot of things that we just didn’t understand about the world at that time.
I didn’t understand that seeing big numbers in my bank account wouldn’t give me that feeling of “I’m a success” quite like getting to finally have an in-unit washer and dryer.
16-year-olds and 20-year-olds often have dreams that are grandiose but shallow. They involve big sums of money or fame or magical careers, but without really understanding what it’s like to have those things — even in lesser quantities.
I imagined the joy I could experience from fame and fortune without understanding the deep satisfaction that comes with finally figuring out how to cook a good curry. I didn’t understand that seeing big numbers in my bank account wouldn’t give me that feeling of “I’m a success” quite like getting to finally have an in-unit washer and dryer.
The reality is that there are things in life that are more enjoyable, complex, and nuanced than those earlier versions of ourselves could have imagined. There are good things in your life right now that those earlier versions of you simply would not know to wish for.
The reality is that there are things in life that are more enjoyable, complex, and nuanced than those earlier versions of ourselves could have imagined.
Likewise, future versions of you will probably experience things that this current version of you would not know to wish for. That’s why the only answer is to embrace your fate and wish for things to turn out however they actually do.
It’s like the overused adage about how if you asked people before the invention of the automobile what they needed, they would say faster horses.
You are dreaming of faster horses when your future actually holds things you can’t imagine.