Where to Find the Control We Seek

When I started this blog I didn’t intend for it to be all about politics. I thought it would be about lots of different things… all of the weighty and important topics in life that I talk about with my friends. I never expected it to be all Trump all the time. But then, I never expected the political situation in this country to take such a dramatic turn. Unfortunately, for the last few months, I’ve been utterly preoccupied with keeping up with the news (fake, alternative and regular) and with trying to do my part. Even with all of the craziness, though, I’ve still been thinking—though not writing—a lot about life.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is control.

Most people can’t imagine living a life where they don’t have at least some degree of control over events or direction of their lives. That is too terrifying to contemplate. We need to believe that someone is in control of our lives and circumstances. So some of us convince ourselves that we’ve got our hands firmly on the wheel and that we’re completely in charge of where we’re going and how fast we’re getting there. Others tell ourselves that there is a higher power in control and that everything will work out according to some divine plan.

I don’t subscribe to either of those views, and consequently I often find myself asking What things and events are beyond my ability to control, and what things are within my sphere of influence?  Sometimes it’s easy to see that I’m making decisions and impacting outcomes. I control what I have for dinner, for example. I control whether I will watch one show tonight, or another. I control whether I lock my doors at night. And that gives me the sense that I’m in the driver’s seat.

But there are other things in life that are clearly outside of my control: I can’t control the economy, or the weather, or the stock market or whether our nation gets into a war. I can’t control whether that other car runs a red light. I can’t control whether I get sick.

So where do I look for answers?

I take a lot of comfort in the Serenity prayer (though I don’t think of it so much as a prayer to God, but rather as a reminder to myself):

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

I think many people primarily relate to and take comfort in the first line of the prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” In other words “let me find some peace with this difficult situation.” Or to put in another way: let me stop fighting against a situation that I am not able to change, and let me meet it with gracious acceptance.

But I find the most comfort in the other two lines. “Grant me….the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” Let me find that thing, however small, that I can control, and then let me find the strength to actually do it.

Because within every situation, whether we can see it or not, and whether we want to admit it or not, we can find the things that we can do which increase the likelihood of a good outcome, or decrease the impact of a bad one. So while we can’t control the larger events, we still can often exert control over the extent to which they impact us. Sometimes it’s not as much as we would wish. But sometimes, it’s more than we realize.

So yes, it’s true that there are situations over which I have no control, but to me the real comfort comes in knowing that within any given situation there ARE things that I actually DO have control of. The real challenge comes in figuring out what those things are, and then taking the often-difficult steps to do them.

Even within the very large category of things that we have no control over (the weather, the economy, etc.) there are both elements that we can’t control, as well as elements that we can control. And in exercising that control, we may have an influence over the extent to which those difficult situations actually impact us. I can’t control the weather, for example, but I can repair my leaky roof before the rainy season. I can’t control the other driver, but I may be able to avoid or mitigate a crash by driving attentively and by not being distracted by my phone. I can’t control the economy, but I can control the impact of a recession if my company needs to downsize, by ensuring that I’m not the one who gets the pink slip by consistently being the best possible employee that I can be. I can’t control wars, but I can control whether I vote for leaders who have sound foreign policies rather than reckless ones. I can’t control whether I get sick, but I can do my best to reduce the chances of getting sick by washing my hands regularly, eating healthfully, exercising regularly, and making other healthy lifestyle choices. If I do get sick, I can make sure I take my medicine, get the rest I need and follow up with my doctor.

Those are the easy ones. There are also other situations that might be more within our control than we want to admit. Do we always find ourselves in unhealthy relationships? It’s possible that the place to look to change that is within ourselves. Are we always getting passed over for promotions at work? Maybe it’s our own attitude or work ethic. What about a difficult relationship with our spouse or child? It’s important to recognize that we can’t change other people. But we can change the way we react to and relate with them. Maybe that’s what’s necessary to turn a bad situation into a better one. We mustn’t blame ourselves for the behavior of abusive partners, but maybe we can take the difficult steps necessary to remove ourselves from the situation.

One of the things that I can always control is my attitude. My attitude might simply be limited to keeping my frustration, disappointment or fear from negatively impacting my interactions with those around me. Another thing I can always do is to remember to be grateful for the positive things in my life.

Within every situation there are things I can’t control and there are things I can control. I often have to look hard for the wisdom to know the difference between two. Sometimes it’s hard work to find the the thing that I can change. Sometimes I don’t want to see it. One of the things I control is whether I do that work or not.

I often lack the courage to change the things that I can change. But I’m working on that. I try to overcome my fears and look for help where I can find it.

So while we can’t control events, we are able to control the way we react to them, control the likelihood that they will happen to us, and control the extent to which we are impacted by them. So in the end, the only thing that we can really control is our own behavior, but that’s a big thing.

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