The Wisdom to Know the Difference

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One of the hallmarks of non-theist religions is their insistence that human life can be improved by cognitive means — by using our thoughts, our knowledge, and our perceptions. In these traditions, wisdom comes not from the gods but from a very human combination of acquired facts and controlled intuitions. Mind. Thought.

(Arguably, in theistic traditions, some forms of prayer employ cognition to call problems into focus.)

The Serenity Prayer is a concise example of improving life though cognitive means: “the wisdom to know the difference” between what we can and cannot change.

The Serenity Prayer encapsulates a key concept in Stoicism, the Axiom of Futility. Simply stated, the Axiom of Futility says: If you can’t do it, don’t do it. Not doing what you can’t do avoids all manner of disappointment.

Clearly, the trick to using the Axiom of Futility is that “wisdom to know the difference” thing. You might decide it’s futile to try to fix your financial situation; or your relationship; or your drinking problem. Those decisions are not wise: just because you don’t want to do something, or just because it’s hard, doesn’t make it futile. It just makes it hard.

The first chapter of The Enchiridion, the classic summation of the philosophy of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, puts it this way:

Some things we can do, some things we can’t. We control our opinions, desires, aversions, and — to be plain — our own emotions.
We have little power over our bodies, our things, or what others think of us. To be plain — these things are not our worries.
What happens when you try to take power over what you have no power over? Frustration. Complaints. Fuss and bother. Finding fault with everything.
Take power over what you have power over. Then, there’s no resistance. There is no “no.” You won’t get hurt. Just keep in mind what you have power over. Don’t cross the line. If you forget — if you go looking for such things as money and power — you might get hurt. At any rate, you will miss what’s important: happiness. Freedom.
Listen: learn what illusion looks like. Learn to say, “That is an illusion.” Learn to ask: “What is in my power?” If it’s not in your power, forget about doing it.

Fortunately, most of us today have power over a few more things than Epictetus the Roman slave did. Still, the Axiom of Futility is a useful cognitive tool: it is wise to know the difference.