Why Life Is Not Perfect

...and it's never going to be perfect.

Posted Mar 05, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye

“One cannot help but feel sorry for human beings,” says Indra’s daughter in A Dream Play by August Strindberg, and it is not hard to agree with this statement. Perhaps we are particularly worthy of Indra’s pity because we forget or fail to acknowledge that we cannot live perfect lives.

Lately, it has become more evident that we need to learn to deal with the fact that we cannot control our lives. We are forced to develop our existential intelligence, to become more resilient and recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change. But, how?

Perhaps philosophy and Stoicism in particular might be useful for handling the complexities of our modern lives. Stoicism is the school of philosophy that developed in Athens, starting as early as 300 BC. Stoicism is often (incorrectly) seen as a cold and heartless philosophy, when it actually invites us to live our lives well. Instead of keeping up appearances, Stoicism aims to inspire us to be constructively engaged, and to understand and handle our emotions and our need for control.

Stoicism highlights the virtues of moderation, courage, morality, and wisdom. Stoicism emphasises that we cannot control everything, but we can always adapt our thoughts and attitudes. We must accept that sometimes we are lucky, and sometimes we are out of luck. It is futile to try to control things over which we actually have no control. In spite of this, we must make the best of the situation. Perhaps I could summarise in very simple terms what Stoicism is with the following:

Take responsibility for your thoughts and your actions, and do not waste your energy on things than you cannot do anything about. All you can do is make the best of what you have.

Or as Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer puts it:

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Wisdom to know the difference. This is a vital aspect of life that we need to practise regularly, in particular because life is so dynamic and the demands on us are so high. But how can we know what we should accept, and what we should handle bravely and stubbornly?

Perhaps the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (born around 55 AD), a former slave who was given his freedom and got to study, can teach us his practical philosophy:

There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one phrase, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one phrase, whatever are not properly our own affairs.

 (Epictetus, from Enchiridion, translation by Thomas W. Higginson).

Millennia after the ideas of Stoicism were first formulated, they still feel modern and relevant to us today. Even when Stoicism is not mentioned explicitly, we can see the links to Stoicism in research on the quality of life, working life, emotional intelligence, and leadership. Stoicism aims to give us ideas about an attitude to life as a whole—practical wisdom. Stoicism sees it as especially important that we seriously explore and respond to what we can and cannot control.

To be wiser, I suggest periodically asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Can I control this, or am I dwelling on things that are beyond my control?
  2. Am I being irritated by trivialities?
  3. Am I being too reactive, and not exercising my freedom to act in ways that I decide?
  4. Am I seeing the value in the life that has been given to me today?
  5. Do I have reasonable expectations?

It is not easy to live by these ideas—and to succeed, we need to keep practising. We need to practise in our everyday lives; we need to practise in our private lives and at work. We need to practise when everything is going well so that we can handle it when things get difficult. We are never going to succeed in all cases, but we have all the time in the world to practise. We need to practise because we need to put things into perspective and make wise choices. We need to practise to be able to manage our own thoughts and feelings, our habits and our vices.

Stoicism challenges us not to seek perfection but to seek growth and development—to do what you can to improve your working life, your life in general, and the world at large. And when you have done that, you don’t make yourself responsible for things you cannot control.