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From Vol. 5, Issue 9, September 2023

The freedom to act, feel, and let go

Practicing Stoicism || ANDI SCIACCA

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Ability to live the way you like

He is free who lives as he likes; who is not subject to compulsion, to restraint, or to violence; whose pursuits are unhindered, his desires successful, his aversions unincurred. Who, then, would wish to lead a wrong course of life? - Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1.

Freedom defined as the ability to live as we like, or to do what we prefer, is unquestionably appealing. Given the choice, who wouldn’t choose to experience life as we see fit? However, if we understand the concept of freedom using lessons learned from Stoic practice, we know that those freedoms must be ruled by the virtues and lead us closer to living in accordance with nature.

Freedom, then, is not making the choice to engage in reckless pursuit of our pleasures – rather, it’s the ability to live without succumbing to the pressures of compulsion, restraint, or violence. If we define freedom as simply avoiding negative impact in its pursuit, we ignore the richness of the experience.

As I’ve continued in the study of Stoicism, I have found three simple practices that allow me to exercise my freedom in ways that are supportive of the virtues while still providing pleasure for myself in my own desire to live a better life.

The freedom to act

Taking action requires an ability to make decisions – and this provides us with countless opportunities to do things that are aligned with Stoic virtues in the course of any given day. We can demonstrate our wisdom or our courage through our decision-making process – or, we can exhibit our commitment to justice when we act justly. The actions we take allow us to be free of vice and turn away from violence. If more of us thoughtfully considered these opportunities to lead the right course of life through our actions, we would find more freedom – not less – as a result.

In my experiences, the decision to practice temperance and act moderately has been the biggest change. As someone who was prone to extremes, or felt that every action required a sort of “all-in” approach, the decision to take smaller, more measured actions has created a sense of calm and confidence in my life. Contrary to what I thought before, quieter, gentler actions produce an even greater connection to others than the louder, more forceful ones. This change has enriched my relationships and made me a better collaborator in any given situation.

The freedom to feel

We focus quite a bit on reaction in Stoic practice – often discussing how we respond to the things that are outside of our control. As we know, people tend to confuse this as a response of non-feeling or apathy. However, if we consider the words of Epictetus, and reflect on what it means to be someone “whose pursuits are unhindered, desires successful, [or] aversions unincurred”, we realize that words like pursuit, desire, and aversion are not flat. They are rich, dynamic, and express our feelings. Stoic freedom doesn’t suggest non-feeling responses – rather, it reminds us of ways to keep our feelings free of the things that often trap us into reacting in ways that lead us to the “wrong course of life”.

Adding to this idea, the work involved in Stoic practice has opened up a new spectrum of emotional responses because I have a better understanding of preferred and dispreferred indifferents. I am now able to consider emotional responses as part of a larger system – which actually frees me to experience them more fully.

The freedom to let go

Finally, and perhaps most significant for many of us, is the ability to find freedom in the act of letting go. When we stop trying to hold everything within our grasp – or stop engaging in foolish pursuits – we can find a new, profound freedom that allows us to clear the way for better things. By letting go of vice, or by allowing the things we cannot control to be released from our lives, we make more room and create more space for the things that add virtue, value, and joy.

Choosing to explore the freedom to let go has been a wonderful experience. When I stopped trying to control everything around me and focused only on what was within my own influence, my life changed dramatically. I know that change was for the better – but it did involve letting go of positions, things, places, feelings, actions, and even some relationships with others. And that was, at times, difficult. But each decision I made provided an easier path to the next one.

With each action, feeling, and release, then, I have experienced freedoms I could not have anticipated – or appreciated – before beginning to try to live this way of life. And while it can be difficult, I know that with each new day, a new opportunity to practice living the right course of life awaits me.

Andi Sciacca is based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she is an Associate Professor II of Critical Studies at The Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD). She is also engaged in several nonprofit leadership roles – including serving as a member of the Modern Stoicism Steering Committee.