The prison of your mind

Often, in life, you get to choose.

You get to choose how you will respond to your circumstances.

Choose wisely and you may add value to your life and to the lives of those around you. Choose unwisely and you may bring yourself and others down.

The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus said that everything in life - every situation, event and relationship - has two handles: one by which it can be carried and the other by which it cannot.



Here is a rather trite example.

You plan to spend the weekend with friends. But circumstances conspire against you and you find that you must spend it alone.

You have a choice. You can mope and complain, or you can make the best of things and enjoy me-time.

One "handle" makes the situation hard to bear; the other makes it easy.

The first choice - moping - is clearly a bad one. Epictetus put it this way: "You are impatient and hard to please. If alone, you call it Solitude. Whereas, when by yourself, you should have called it Tranquillity and Freedom and, herein, deemed yourself like unto the Gods."

Here is a not-so-trite example.

A family member disappoints you. So now, you have a choice. You can nurse your disappointment and become angry and bitter. Or you can bear in mind that this person is family and try to preserve the relationship.

In the words of Epictetus: "If your brother acts unjustly, don't lay hold on the action by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be carried; but by the opposite, that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it, as it is to be carried."


Often, in life, you get to choose. You get to decide by which of the two handles you will grasp a situation. According to Epictetus, if you make the wrong choice, you will be punished.

Punished by whom? By yourself. If you choose to mope when you must spend time alone, you will be locked inside a prison of your own unhappiness. Similarly, if you dwell too much on disappointments in your relationships, you will end up locked inside a prison of your own discontent.

Even worse, you will become the very thing you despise - a bad brother, sister, son, daughter, parent, spouse or friend.

Epictetus said: "Is any discontented with his parents? Let him be a bad son, and lament. Is any discontented with his children? Let him be a bad father.

"Throw him into prison! What prison? Where he is already: for he is there against his will; and wherever a man is against his will, that, to him, is a prison."


I watched an inspiring talk by an American teenager called Sam Berns on recently.

Sam, who died in 2014, aged 17, suffered from progeria, a rare genetic disorder that accelerates the ageing process. Symptoms include limited growth, hair loss, fragile bones and a distinctive appearance (a small face with a recessed jaw and a pinched nose).

Despite his condition, Sam insisted that his life was a very happy one. And in sharing his philosophy of happiness, he offered what I consider to be very wise advice: "Be okay with what you ultimately can't do because there's so much that you can do."

Sam was facing extraordinarily trying circumstances. But he had the will and courage to grasp them by the correct handle.

"Try not to waste time feeling badly about yourself," he said. "It will leave you no room for happiness or any other emotion."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2017, with the headline 'The prison of your mind'. Print Edition | Subscribe