You can be kind. You can be good. You can be patient, loving, and giving. But at the end of the day, you cannot control the outcome of your life. Your friends may abandon you. Your love may leave. Your health may fail you. Your life may be taken from you.
Rather than troubling yourself by possible futures, which you know you cannot control, rather concern yourself with your actions and your character, which are in your control.
As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, of old puts it, “Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.”
So, be kind, be good, be patient, loving, and giving. And yes, your kindness will most probably go unappreciated, your goodness could be belittled, your patience tested, your love questioned, and your sacrifice overlooked or even ignored.
Yes, this is a fact of life, you cannot control how you are perceived. Though you can influence, you cannot fully control the thoughts, opinions, or attitudes of others.
The version found written on the wall in Mother Teresa’s home for children in Calcutta:
“People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway. If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway. What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway. Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”
This brings me to something Marcus Aurelius once said: “An emerald shine even if it’s worth is not spoken of.”
Hence, you need to remember that when you do good, do it because it’s the right thing to do. Do not be a certain way because you want to be liked, or because you want to be loved, or even respected. Do not do good things hoping that someone will notice your goodness. This will only bring suffering.
Maybe this is what the Indian-American philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti meant with: “I don’t mind what happens. That is the essence of inner freedom. It is a timeless spiritual truth: release attachment to outcomes, deep inside yourself, you’ll feel good no matter what.”
Be a certain way because you know it is good to be that way. Work hard because hard work is good, not because you expect that hard work will get you places.
Love because loving is good, not because you expect that you will be loved in return. Be fair because fairness is good, not because you expect to be treated fairly in return. Do good anyway.
Goodness is its own reward, and because your own goodness is entirely in your control, this is where you should focus your efforts.
I remember the singer, songwriter Leonard Cohen, replying this to a journalist question, “Act the way you’d like to be and soon you’ll be the way you act.”
And remember never blindly accept or reject criticism. Evaluate criticisms on you, on your character, on your actions, and change for the better where you can do so.
Always acknowledging that you are not perfect, this is the first step to self-improvement, not the last. We feel the worst about ourselves when we know deep down that we aren’t giving it our all.
If we are giving it our best, putting forth an honest effort to improve, our conscience is clear. Not so? But self-deception is a trap we set that tears us down when we are not expecting it. It can cause us to stumble in the dark, and have no idea what we are stumbling over. And not knowing what troubles us is the beginning of the end of mental stability and harmony.
Like constantly worrying about things beyond your control. Seneca once said: “Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.”
Think about this, if human beings are born with only two fears – of falling and of loud noises. Where do the rest of their fears come from? Their past, off course. And where do their fears become a reality? Their future.
I may add “possible future” since even our own future is never really known to us, despite how predictable it may seem at times. Very rarely are we really afraid of things in the present for the presents sake.
We may fear loneliness, but not merely because we are alone today, but because we fear being alone in the future. With the gift of foresight, we have plagued ourselves with fears that may not even ever become realities.
On this Seneca wisely remarked: “He suffers more than necessary, who suffers before it is necessary.”
People still believe that their unhappiness is a result of their circumstances. They believe that if they could just be in a more pleasant situation they would be much happier. But the reality of this all is that you will never be able to fully control the situation that you are in. We know that at any moment our circumstances could take a turn for the worst. This you cannot control, but you can control your mind, and your attitude.
Nothing has the ability to trouble you without your permission. This you have the ability to deny at any moment. So stop waiting for your life to begin, live the life you have.
You must take care not to try and merely live a long life, but rather a full one; for living a long life requires a good portion of luck, but living a full life requires character.
Let me conclude with one of my favorite quotes, it’s from the American philosopher Allen Ginsberg, “To gain your own voice, forget about having it heard. Become a saint of your own province and your own consciousness.”