This is the first of a three part mini-series of musings on control. You can find The Wisdom to Know the Difference, Control, Part 2 and The Priority of Freedom, Control, Part 3 here.

Control. It’s got a bad rap, but only on a very superficial level. No one wants to be called “controlling,” but if you listen careful, most people still want to be in control.

After all, we hear:

A good teacher can control her class.

A good parent has her kids under control.

Effective science “lets us control nature, whether we’re talking about the weather, or disease, or our own fears, or buying habits.” (Bernard, 2011: Kindle location 478-481)

Life satisfaction, itself, is in part,  ‘‘satisfaction with level of personal control over one’s life.’’ (Bernard, 2011: Kindle location 1284-1288).

We’re still being sold the line that if you really want to be happy, you need to be in control, and so we’re sold gadgets and gizmos galore to help us with the overwhelming task of creating order in a seemingly chaotic world: of taking back control.

The problem, as I see it, is that we haven’t distinguished very well between arenas in which we have control, arenas in which – with enough effort, energy and resource expenditure – we have, at best, influence, and arenas in which, try as we may, we are helpless.

One of the most joyous aspects of living with our friends in Era, a rural community in a mountainous region of the tropics, was coming to terms with my own lack of control in so many arenas, and my limits in others, and accepting it. It was a profoundly liberating experience, although tough at times, too.

I grew to understand that control and power are not the same thing. We are made, as humans, to be powerful. To treat someone as powerless is a violation of their humanity. It is an abuse. Each of us, even the tiniest toddler (as many parents testify), want to know that they are powerful beings. We are made in the image of God. Of course we were made to be powerful. Part of what is so deeply twisted about slavery, rape, child abuse, colonial abuses, racism, sexism…is the belief that some humans should be less powerful than others; that one person’s power should violate another’s. Power is not a zero sum game and treating it as such is How to Ruin and Wreck the World 101.

But control is different. You know what I think is really powerful?

Knowing what you have control over, and controlling it.

Knowing what you might be able to influence, and choosing wisely how to spend your resources and yourself to effectively influence it.

Knowing what you choose not to influence and reconciling yourself to it.

Knowing what you do not control and accepting it.

Accepting, yes, but I don’t mean accepting as good, right, or even as inevitable. I don’t mean accepting passively, palms of surrender raised to the skies. No. I can’t control other people but that does not mean I am ok with other people living in oppressive and cruel ways. Death is something I have no control over, but I rage against it and unapologetically (Stephen Jay Gould put it so well). So I don’t mean the kind of acceptance where you choose not to care. Of course we care. What I mean is accepting the limits of my own control, and that, I am learning, is the most powerful position from which to bring change anyway.

Because the truth is, we are not in control of other people – that is reality. How are we going to live with that reality? Are we going to despise our limitedness, exhausting ourselves with the constant, incessant exertion of trying, trying, trying to be in control of everything, and always coming up short? But if I just try a little harder… Are we going to self-medicate? I just need to zone out. If I lose myself in the internet for 6 hours it will numb me to the pain of how out of control I feel. Or will we accept it, and work from that place towards our goals? That used to seem like the unthinkable option, to me. GIVE UP?! NEVER!

But as I learned to live in a world where Aaron and I faced our limits in a more stark way than we did in London, and in which friends referred openly and without shame to their own limits, to each other’s and to ours, I realised that it is not giving up. It is choosing. It’s choosing where to expend my energy, and where, consequentially, not to. It is recognising the cost of influence, and choosing to sometimes draw a line: “too expensive.” It’s freeing others to do the same. It’s giving myself more space to grieve when things that are out of my control hurt me or others, and to celebrate in gratefulness when the things I can’t control bring me life. Accepting my limits is, I think, the starting point for powerful influence. It is releasing myself from the battles I was never meant to win, and freeing myself to fight the battles I was.

The old way just made me stressed out; I was ready for a new way, and what I have found as I have started learning this new way is more contentment, more peace and happiness, and more energy to fight the battles that I was made to win.

Image by Pixabay user Jon Kline


Bernard, H. R. (2011) Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, 5th Edtion. Kindle edition: Alta Mira.

Gould, S. J. (date unknown) The Median Isn’t the Message. Available at [Accessed: 31st March 2014]