If you live in the US, it’s tax season. My husband and I have been sifting through forms, receipts, and paperwork of all kinds, preparing to pay our tax bills, all the while using tax-incentivized accounts for childcare, college savings, and retirement.
We do all this to protect our financial well-being. It’s part of our reality: As citizens of the modern world, we need to keep paying our taxes and saving for our family’s future. It’s not just us. Huge industries revolve around financial protections for individuals, companies, and governments.
And yet, in my recent reading of Epictetus, I was reminded of the greatest asset we need to protect: Our ruling center.
In Discourses 3.10, “How we ought to bear our illnesses,” Epictetus shares these thoughts:
"For it isn’t the business of a philosopher to safeguard these external things, his little store of wine or oil, or his poor body; but in that case, what? His own ruling center. And how should he concern himself with external things? Only so far as to ensure that he doesn’t have towards them in any ill-considered manner…. What occasion is there left for fear when it comes to external things, to things of no value?"
It is easy to lose sight of how little external things, especially material possessions, matter in the bigger picture of human flourishing.
The experience of living without luxuries can teach us that. I just recounted to my daughters how when they were very young, we didn’t have the funds to fix our bedroom’s broken windows. We stuffed paper towels and strips of brown paper bags in the warped wood of the double-hung frame, dating back to 1940, that gaped open. Another window was cracked through the middle.
We couldn’t do anything about it, and years went by that way. At night, it was often cold, too, since we were living without central heating. Sometimes I’d wake up with strange dreams, likely prompted by the wind whistling through the glass.
And yet we had some of our most memorable experiences in that two-bedroom cottage with its white picket fence and butter-yellow siding. Our daughters learned to walk there; they learned to talk there. We cooked and hosted our family and friends. My husband and I spent many a late night, after the kids fell asleep, watching movies together from the sofa by our front window. We've since moved on, but haven't forgotten.
Knowing that you can “do without” eases the fear about losing external things that Epictetus speaks of. It was tough. But my own ruling center, along with my principles and the values I aspired to, were what mattered, then and now. The virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control were and are the treasures I hope to gain. I try to guide my children down this same path, too, so that they will be prepared to cherish this part of themselves more than anything.
A version of this post appeared in The Stoic magazine, April edition, published by @TheStoicGym. Please take a look at the whole issue!
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.