"Most of all, the work of nature is this: to make desire and impulse to act fit closely with what is appropriate and useful." Musonius
Nobody questions whether a tiger's actions are natural. It can quietly sleep all day long or suddenly attack to kill a deer. Everything that a tiger does is what it is supposed to do, no more no less. So, too, the deer. Whether it is able to outrun the tiger or gets captured and eaten, the deer acts in harmony with nature. Yet this is not always the case with human beings. In comparison with even wild beasts, we are the least natural.
The reason is quite simple: too often people erroneously attempt to control what is uncontrollable. They try to guess what someone else is thinking and what someone else is about to do. Not surprisingly, they would get it wrong. That is because everyone doesn't think exactly alike. Since all people have different past experiences, they also have different beliefs, preferences, and tendencies. On top of getting things wrong, people also worry about what someone else might think and do. When this happens, their minds are clouded by strong emotions and thus cannot see and evaluate accurately the true situation.
Furthermore, because of people's ability to imagine the future, they erroneously think they can accurately forecast the future. There are an infinite amount of factors and variables that affect the future. One cannot possibly account for them all to formulate the correct calculation. As such, people waste the present by trying to act according to the future. If they guess wrong -- and often they do guess wrong -- not only will they be in an unfavorable position in the future but also will waste even more time by complaining and wallowing in their own misery. And so they would worry twice as much, making a bad situation worse.
On the other hand, what is natural is our adventurous attempt to control what is truly controllable: our own thoughts and actions right at this present moment. Instead of focusing on what other people are thinking and doing, be most concerned about what you are thinking and what you are doing. Nobody can necessarily fault you if someone thinks poorly of you or tries to hurt you. Many of history's heroes are filled with unrighteous enemies who irrationally hate them and try to destroy them. However, people can indeed blame you for thinking mean and devious thoughts and behaving in an unkind or dishonest manner. In addition, nobody will necessarily fault you for being wrong about the future, but they can indeed blame you if you behave wrongly or irrationally at this present moment.
Therefore, if you treated everyone with fairness and promoted justice, for example, nothing that even the entire world does can deny what you did. What people do belongs to them. What you do belongs to yourself. Now would you rather own something that is filled with anger and selfishness, or do you want to own something that is filled with devotion and nobility?
If you only think about your own observations, understanding, and actions, you will always be right. You need not guess at what you just saw, learned, or did -- or even what you will see, learn, or do -- since you can read your mind, control your muscles, and pinpoint your exact ambition. Thus, when you follow your own path, you are in accordance with nature. When you try to walk in someone else's path, you think and act awkwardly and unskillfully, trying to predict what is essentially unpredictable. You would not be in accordance with nature because you are neither natural nor yourself.
You are as strong and powerful as a tiger. You are also social and gentle like a deer. You are well beyond a tiger or a deer -- you are Epictetus, my beloved son. No one can harm you since you have inner and outer strength, and no one can keep up with your momentum since you are keen and magnanimous. You are far away from dark souls not because you are perturbed by them, but quite the opposite, because you are well far ahead of them. You are in a place that is all your own -- although you now have invited others to come along, too, and to join you in a marvelous life adventure. Hold on to each other's hands firmly and rollick with boundless joy.
"If you choose to hold fast to what is right, do not be irked by difficult circumstances, but reflect on how many things have already happened to you in life in ways that you did not wish, and yet they have turned out for the best." Musonius
Since there are even people who strive and suffer working on endeavors that are illegal and immoral, how much more so would you be willing to strive and suffer working on endeavors that are noble and awe-inspiring? These worthy ventures are not necessarily for others to admire but they are taken to test your endurance and stamina such that you would impress even yourself. For until you have earned the respect of yourself, you cannot assume you can gain the respect of others.
When you have earned your own respect, it is real. Even if you are able to fool everyone, you cannot fool yourself. You know exactly what you are thinking at anytime, how hard you have actually pushed yourself, how you weathered unfairness yet did not lose focus, and whether you were able to resist temptations that overcame you in the past. Even if you did try to fool yourself, you will fail because in the back of your mind, you know it is not real.
However, once you have worked hard, persisted, and finally earned your confidence, you are impervious to the opinions of the world. If someone speaks ill of you, you would discount it immediately because it is so blatantly false. It would be like if someone accuses you of lying and you know you did not, no amount of evidence could possibly satisfy that person, yet you know the entire truth. If it was possible for him to read your mind, you would let him, but he cannot. Indeed you would be more concerned about that person's obvious ignorance than being concerned about yourself, and would try to convince him if possible.
Even if the entire world were to say you are only worth such and such, would you doubt yourself and believe it? No, you would not. You have already tested, realized, and confirmed your value. Your worth is not determined by others and what they think -- since they can be fooled -- but determined by a substantially more reliable source who knows you more than anyone: yourself.
How do you test yourself? By making decisions that are different than the decisions you made in the past under similar circumstances. For example, if you normally gorge on food in the afternoons, make it your goal that you will not do so this afternoon. You will have success if you are patient and not try to do too much all at one time. Like a baby who has never walked before, you cannot run right away, but must concentrate intensely for even taking one small step. It will be difficult at first, but everything worthwhile is difficult at first. If you keep at it, over time it will become easier and more natural.
With each harmful habit replaced by a beneficial routine, you begin to build confidence in your ability to effect change in both yourself and the world around you. You begin to look for more problems to tackle. Perhaps strange to say but you might even run out of problems and now are looking to make the good things in your life even better. Your improvements would be more impressive than mere arithmetic. It would be analogous to starting from being one foot tall to being five feet tall over time. Then if you continue to work hard, you will become six feet tall. You press on and work some more still, neither looking back nor comparing yourself to others, and pretty soon you find yourself seven feet tall. Who is seven feet tall in the world? Not too many people.
So when a person goes to you and say you are short, would you be upset or perturbed? Or would you simply smile and send him on his way? You can try to correct him of his obvious error but one would have to be ready to receive such instruction. From my experience, people who are ready and willing to learn, you cannot keep them away regardless. The more you try to discourage them, the more encouraged they are, since they realize you have what they need.
If you want to safeguard inner strength, be sure to build outer strength as well. Although your soul and mind remain the most important parts of your being, the rest of your body must complement them. Otherwise, the gods would not have given you a body for you to take care of in the first place. Build endurance by not allowing your body to be too soft and affected by hot or cold weather, for example. If you hear yourself complaining about the weather being too hot or too cold, stop yourself immediately. Build stamina by pushing your muscles beyond their normal limit ever so slightly on a regular basis. It should not be painful, but it should not be such that you do not feel the difference either. Never allow the body to dictate where your mind wants to go, and let it be like a trained and disciplined soldier always ready to receive a command.
In summary, take care of you and your life will take care of itself. When circumstances do not work out as planned, you would simply keep on trying like you would try on another pair of shoes since the previous ones did not fit. You would neither expect all shoes to fit perfectly, nor would you expect things in life to work out as you have wished. Therefore, with a strong soul, mind, and body, you would gladly accept the challenge of the way things truly are, not what you wished them to be. Yet you have too much respect to bet against yourself, that in time, what you wished for might very well be what you have earned and worked hard for. In the same way, and proudly so, I have placed my bet squarely on you, Epictetus.
"Where this love for each other is perfect and the two share it completely, each striving to outdo the other in devotion, the marriage is ideal and worthy of envy, for such a union is beautiful." Musonius
That a relationship should be rewarding to you seems like a given, yet it is more accurately an afterthought. After all, that is only half of the matter. The other half is asking how is that same relationship rewarding for the other person? If one day passes such that the answer to that question remains unclear is one day too many. People think a good relationship is a peaceful partnership when in actuality a rewarding union is active and competitive -- a competition to see who can outdo each other in making the other person's life even more rewarding. The key here is that both individuals play along and continue well beyond the infatuation stage, demanding that your behavior must be appropriate and never extreme.
It never fails that one ignores the last sentence above and thus would have the following concern: how do you know you are not being taken advantaged of? You do not know, if you are doing it right. What you do is your main concern, without any expectation of a return favor. The relationship, if there is going to be a relationship in the first place, is one that is built on trust, first and foremost. The reason why this is important is without trust, there would be hesitation. And if there is hesitation, then there would be doubt and a lack of devotion, a lack of fun and enthusiasm. When those components are missing, you are defeated and your competition wins out.
Besides, does it really matter that later you discover the other person wasn't really devoted? You acted in good faith throughout and that is all that should matter to you. You are without blame for something outside of your control. You would, however, be faulted if you did anything less. If you gave it your all, everything you got, the best outcome was what it was, even if it was unsuccessful. Therefore, why worry or even predict a bad outcome from the outset and for certain fulfill your own prediction? With complete trust and devotion, you have a fighting chance to fulfill and maintain a union, which is as sure a guarantee in life as it gets.
In a relationship, when a problem arises, focus on attacking the problem, not the one who is beside you helping you. When something goes right, focus on sharing the success, and recognizing the one who helped you, even if only indirectly. When everything is stable and normal, extend yourself by improving and making something better in your relationship, to further affirm and strengthen the union. All these scenarios require work, but it is the type of work you find rewarding in and of itself.
Therefore, Epictetus, when a girl decides to hold your hand, you can decide to reciprocate, too. Realize, however, that she can also choose to later let go if she doesn't want to walk beside you anymore. Thus, be sure you do all you can to make the walk worthwhile for her. If she is a good fit for you, then she would do the same. If it doesn't work out, do not assume there was anything wrong, for trying to find a match and realizing something doesn't fit are rather common and natural. What is super is realizing a beautiful existing union, one worthy of not taking each other for granted, of trying to earn each other's keep each and every day.