Navigating our way through life is a perennial challenge. But does it have to be? One can discover what the most remarkable thinkers had to say on virtually any topic within minutes. Although read any book on living a good life, and you’ll find what seem to be contradictions. 

Through or Around?

Take this passage from Meditations by Marcus Aurelius,

“Our actions may be impeded . . . but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Marcus Aurelius

The above quote inspired Ryan Holiday to write the bestseller The Obstacle is the Way. Holiday writes, “The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.”

However, later in Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote,

"A bitter cucumber? Throw it away. Brambles in the path? Go round them. That is all you need, without going on to ask, ‘So why are these things in the world anyway?’"

Marcus Aurelius

At times, the obstacle is the way, and we are wise to go around at other times. The difficulty often arises in knowing when to do what.

My interview with Carl McColman (author of Eternal Heart) revealed how wisdom is often paradoxical. According to McColman, “One of the things about mystical spirituality is it profoundly paradoxical, which means almost anything you say, you could probably get away with saying its opposite.”

Knowing the Difference

The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr highlighted the wisdom of knowing the difference in his famous serenity prayer. Although originally longer, today it’s commonly quoted as follows:

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.

Reinhold Niebuhr

The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.


The wisdom to know the difference applies to nearly every decision. It’s even a central aspect of how the Stoics defined wisdom.

In the Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes of Laertes wrote the Stoics defined wisdom as knowing what is good (virtue), what is bad (vice), and what is indifferent. For this reason, Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself,

“Become indifferent to what makes no difference.”

Marcus Aurelius

Final Thoughts

Navigating life requires the wisdom to know the difference. Is this an obstacle to go through or around? Is it something under my control or not under my control? Is this a virtue or a vice? Before we can “become indifferent to what makes no difference,” we must have the wisdom to know the difference.



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