Thursday, October 8, 2009

The illusion of control

“The closest to being in control we will ever be is in that moment that we realize we're not.” ~ Brian Kessler

How much time do you spend trying to control your environment, your circumstances, or the people around you? Perhaps the better question is, do you believe that you have the power to control any of these things? If you answered, yes to that question, then I can relate. I used to believe I could control most anything. However, I've learned that control is an illusion.

True control means that you are either omniscient (all knowing), omnipotent (all powerful), or both. If you believe you are either of these things, then I suggest calling a mental health professional immediately. I think most of us know that we are neither and yet we often behave as if we are.

In the absence of those two powers, we attempt to exercise what we perceive as control in many ways: Deception (lies), seduction (emotional manipulation), coercion (force), and avoidance being a few of the common ways. More often, it is with a combination of those methods. Despite how successful we may be in using those tools to get what we want (or avoid what we don't want), it is hubris to think that no one sees through our lies, that everyone is subject to our charms, that we are strong enough to overpower the rest of the population, or that we can live in avoidance of everything we perceive as a threat. Additionally, there are forces that will always be beyond our control. We cannot make it stop raining. We cannot make someone love us. We cannot avoid death.

Please don't get the message that our choices and actions are meaningless. I don't believe they are. The mistake we make is in confusing the concept of "control" with the idea of "influence." True control means we can dictate the outcomes. Influence means we can affect the outcomes, but we must accept the possibility that things may not turn out the way we want them to. Influence is a powerful thing, but it is not control. Consider this. You can make every correct choice, execute perfectly, and still not get the result that you want.

Allow me to illustrate with an example. You want to avoid an early death, so you make a commitment to eating healthy, exercising, and generally following the advice of the scientific community in what they report as the best foods and methods for achieving your goal. In most cases you will probably succeed as long as you stick with the plan. That is your influence over your own body. However, in making this lifestyle change, you begin eating more vegetables. You buy a bag of pre-made salad from the grocery store and consume it for dinner. The lettuce in the salad is tainted with E.coli and as a result you fall ill and die. Its unlikely to occur in real life you say? Well it did happen a few years ago and they pulled much of the lettuce from the shelves. The point of the example is not to make you fear the minute possibility that your food may be contaminated. It is to demonstrate that it is possible for us to get the exact opposite result in trying to attain a goal. In this case, in trying to avoid an early death, an untimely death is exactly what it led to.

“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” ~ Jean de La Fontaine

There will always be things that are beyond your sphere of influence. It is not easy to put forth your best effort knowing that it may not be enough. However, it is important to remember that often it will be. Life is not about the odds, percentages, or probabilities. Modern life makes a wealth of information available to us, but it seems the accessibility of that information produces as much fear as it does comfort. It may be comforting to see that the murder rate of the town we live in is low, but low doesn't mean that you are completely safe, just as a high murder rate doesn't automatically make you unsafe. It may be scary to see that 90% of businesses fail, but it doesn't mean you absolutely will fail if you start that business you've always dreamed of opening. It just means it won't be easy. Life is an endless stream of unforeseen circumstances. It is what keeps things interesting for some, and terrifying for others.

In the end, there is only one thing we can ever hope to control - ourselves. That in itself is difficult enough. It means accepting that sometimes we will fail, but by changing the way we think and feel about failure, we can cope with it better. It means sometimes we will allow our fears to control our actions, but by mastering our fears we can work towards changing our future actions. It means understanding that sometimes there are no answers or explanations for the things that happen to us, but by believing in our own strength, we can endure.

I think if we all spent more time in learning to control our own thoughts, emotions, and actions, instead of everything else around us, we would feel less stress, have less conflict, and generally feel more positive about the world. In taking control of ourselves, we take control of the world as we experience it, and in how we influence it.

"When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.

Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world."
~ unknown monk 1100A.D

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