This is part two of a three part mini-series of musings on control. You might also like to check out Fight the Battles You Were Made For, Control, Part 1 and The Priority of Freedom, Control, Part 3.
“Of course I am helpless. And so what do I do with helplessness?”
Tom Lubbock, in his astonishing book Until Further Notice, I am Alive (Lubbock, 2012), writes a lot about coming face-to-face with his own lack of control as he is put in the position of facing his own death from a brain tumour. His and other books, and my own experiences in Era and then – by way of stark contrast! – in Singapore left me meditating on control, freedom and power.
One striking point Lubbock makes is that there is a privilege in the “real-ness” of his position. In a far less real way, I have started realising the same thing. We are all out of control on this earth – it’s what we do with it that makes the difference. And the denial drug is starting to look like a serious problem to me, with dangerous side effects.
The knack, of course, is being able to distinguish between what I can and can’t control, and that takes such courage and wisdom that it sometimes feels beyond me. This is what I’ve got so far.
Knowing what you do not control and accepting it:
So here’s a thing I can’t control: other people. It’s not exactly a revelation, and yet, it is, and such a freeing one. I cannot control any other person. How much energy do we expend in day-to-day life in the futile task of trying to control other people? Unless someone gives you control of their life – a dangerous game for both parties to play – we are helpless over another person’s will.
Of course we can ask for our needs to be met, we can ask people to change, we can build relationships of trust that inspire people to listen to us, we can set boundaries and we can create environments in which certain uses of the will are met with consequences, but control? It’s not going to happen – it’s as simple as that. It’s this very fact that true rebels in abusive and oppressive regimes grab hold of and use to drive their oppressors insane.
There are other things that I don’t really have any control over either. The weather, for instance, which dramatically affects day-to-day. In Era, I wrote one day “We’ve got piles of laundry not drying on the line in 90-something percent humidity outside, but what am I going to do about it? We’ve also got a massive tank full of rain water to drink which I can’t take any credit for, so…thank you. I have no control over the order in which community events happen, get postponed, and end up playing out, which dramatically affects my PhD and my work schedule. Such is life. Roll with it. You never know what treasures might turn up.”
Knowing what you might be able to influence, and choosing wisely how to spend your resources and yourself to effectively influence it.
Perhaps the majority of issues which come our way are issues which we could influence, but only at a high price. I really, really want to learn to approach these issues wisely.
When Aaron and I were in Malaysia, we came across a pet shop. At first we were drawn – animals! – but within seconds we were both repelled and yet unable to move from the spot, staring in horror through the open shop front into tiny cage after tiny cage, each overcrowded with animals. A kitten in my direct line of sight looked straight at me and meowed pitifully as if to say, “Rescue me!” while her kitten cage mate tried helplessly to dig a hole in which to relieve herself into the piece of newspaper in her little cage. Meanwhile they scratched themselves and their poorly kept fur. We were disgusted and heartbroken.
Although we couldn’t control the situation we started discussing what the cost of our influence would be:
“We could buy the animals – the kittens say – and release them.”
“I’m sure we would not get them through customs into Singapore…”
“No, we’d have to release them here, but far from this pet shop, or the owner might just re-capture them.”
“I wonder what the laws are about animals on the streets in Malaysia?”
“And would they survive the streets having never been free?”
“We’d have to buy some cat food and ease them into it…”
“Though we’re only here for another 2 days and they hotel wouldn’t let them in.”
“But if we could find someone local who would look after them for a while…”
“Well let’s at least ask how much they’d cost.”
The answer was over £100 per kitten – prohibitively high for us – not to mention the cost of essentially giving up our short two days of rest to rehabilitate kittens and the risk of it being unsuccessful. This is not a story with a happy ending. We didn’t free the kittens.
But there are stories with happy endings. Collectively, although maybe not individually, we have the resources to fight the injustices of this world. Not being in control is not a reason to accept systemic injustices or individual cruelty as a hopeless case. We are powerful people. We can influence and change so much. I really want to grow in wisdom in this arena, to choose well where to throw my influence against the weight of things I can’t control, and when to pay the cost, because here’s the thing – I’m pretty sure that influencing things that we don’t have control over is always costly.
Knowing what you might be able to influence, but choosing not to, and reconciling yourself to it.
Because it’s costly, not just financially, but in terms of energy, time and personal investment, sometimes it’s just not worth it. I do not mean this as some sort of excuse for walking past evil with a blind eye because it will cost me too much, although it is sadly true that we can’t fight all the injustices of the world at once (I guess that’s why we need team). But, I think this category is probably more overcrowded with things that I try to influence to make me look good, to make my life a little bit more convenient, or just to feel a bit more in control. For example, I can’t control what other people think of me, but I can influence it, and I do, despite the price tag. What if the resources I spent on that were re-directed? I think that sometimes we try to exert control so extensively over our environment, without realising the cost we are paying, that we simply don’t have anything left to win the battles we were made to fight. There is an enormous amount in our day-to-day lives that we seem to feel expected to try and take control over, and I really never realised before how much we exhaust ourselves in the process.
Take our house in Era, that was built for us. We had very little say in where it would be, what it would be or how it turned out. We sort of set a vision, and the community ran with it. Well, could we have influenced that more than we did? Of course we could! We could have scoped out locations, decided where we wanted to live, made a scene, tried to enter into negotiations with whoever’s land said location was on, asserted our desire to the group, recruited carpenters willing to work off drawings instead in the traditional way (and paid the price) – we could have influenced it. But we would have lost so much, and spent so much, in doing so. I’m pretty sure we would have ended up with something worse, and more expensive, and with some broken relationships to boot.
So yeah, accepting the situation took some energy, but can you imagine the energy and loss it would take to not accept the situation?
So sometimes we choose not to. We let go of control. We don’t make the taxi we thought we would, we receive our home as a gift, we take the food that’s available in season, and we roll with it.
Knowing what you have control over, and controlling it.
Me. That’s this category. I control me. I can set my own boundaries, choose who influences me, choose who I am connected to, choose what I do with what I’ve been given: I control me. Me is what I am learning to master, practising. And with mastery of me-control, I believe I can actually have influence and inspire change like I’ve never yet tasted.
“You want to feel powerful? Tell your bones where to go, how long to stay there, what to put in your mouth and what not to let out of your mouth. If you want to feel powerless, try telling other people what to do.”
Danny Silk (2013) Loving Your Kids on Purpose, Kindle location 1347-1348
Image – the gorgeous house we ended up with in Era by not being in control – by Jock Hughes