“You don’t control the outcome. The stoic notion is therefore that you should be mindful of where your agency lies and you should be focusing all your energy only on things that you can do something about… the rest, you should start from the get-go with an attitude of equanimity” – Massimo Pigliucci

On this episode, my focus is on finding peace of mind amidst persistent uncertainty. So many things that are directly affecting our lives are out of our direct control – and it can be maddening.  Covid, shelter-in-place orders, business shutdowns, and forced unemployment. I often think of those of you who opened a restaurant or any physical retail establishment right before the pandemic hit.

Serenity now.

If you haven’t seen the iconic Seinfeld episode of the same name (Ep. 159) you really should check it out, it’s one of my favorites. Frank Costanza is advised to say “serenity now” aloud every time he is stressed out, but he yells it at the top of his lungs instead. The mantra then becomes the thread throughout the episode as various characters reach boiling points and then – well sitcom genius ensues.

And although serenity seems so ethereal as to be impractical –  it is a serious subject, just ask those in AA; the Serenity Prayer is considered a cornerstone spiritual tool used by virtually all 12-step recovery programs.

Ancient Greeks used the term ataraxia, which means a state of serene calmness. Steven Gambardella writes in the Sophist  “Ataraxia is not a positively-defined state such as “happy” or “excited” It was believed by the Hellenistic philosophies to be a “resting” state of serenity.” To achieve this state, the 3rd-century Stoic sages taught the need to discern between “things not up to us” vs. “things up to us”.

This is the dichotomy of control.

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.”  – Epictetus / the Enchiridion

Herein lies the key to much of our neurosis, not understanding what’s in our control and what’s not. Crazy making is treating outcomes as objects, to paraphrase psychoanalyst Leslie Farber, trying to will what cannot be willed. So how do we come to this understanding and how do we work it out in our everyday lives?

My guest is Massimo Pigliucci. Massimo has a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He currently is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of science, the relationship between science and philosophy, the nature of pseudoscience, and the practical philosophy of Stoicism.

He is also the author or editor of 14 books, including the bestselling How to Be A Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. Other titles include Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk and his just published  A Field Guide to a Happy Life.  During this podcast, cover these talking points and more…

  • How his life changed in 2014
  • How thoughts are culprits when it comes to suffering
  • How stress is created
  • The dichotomy of control
  • Holding things lightly; loans from the bank of the universe
  • Unhooking happiness from results
  • Ambition, goals and the challenge of process orientation
  • Pandemics, mask-wearing and citizenship
  • Historical perspectives on crazy political seasons and unorthodox leaders
  • On pacifism and civic engagement

Massimo was great as usual so – take a break fo the insanity out there, put your earphones on, go for a walk and give it a listen.

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