14. Out of Control?

CONTROL: The power to influence or direct people's behaviour or the course of events.

Control = good - Out of control = bad

That’s what we’re taught isn’t it? 

It’s true. On a personal level ‘losing it’ never ends well, and no one wants out of control kids and dogs. So in general we do a pretty good job when it comes to controlling ourselves and those we are responsible for.

But for some of us controlling things goes beyond the personal, it’s a job. As it turns out there are quite a few things that we need to keep under control. You may be a ‘Financial’, ‘Credit’ or ‘Cost’ controller. Perhaps you control ‘Production’, ‘Stock’ or ‘Quality’. Actually, the more you think about it the more you realise just how much we want to control: Borders, Births, Guns, Minds, Risk, Crowds, the list goes on.

But even professionals can’t control everything, and in some cases that lack of control can be dangerous. Personally, I don’t mind if the stock controller loses a few widgets, but I’d rather the air traffic controller keeps up a 100% record, and right now Infection Control seems like one to get right.

But however much we think we can control people and things we all know there is much we can’t do a damn thing about. From the traffic on the commute to work, the delay to our train, or the weather for our BBQ. 

Yet we still get annoyed, angry and frustrated when things don’t go as we want them to.

We find ourselves wishing we could control everything and everyone. Bending them to our will, making our lives perfect.

We stand more chance of doing that than our ancestors did. If it’s dark we flick a switch, if it’s chilly we turn a dial. Technology these days has certainly given us a level of control they could never have dreamt about.

But where will it all end?

Alan Watts touched on this in ‘The Book On The Taboo of Knowing Who You Are’. In it, he says:

“We are trying to control the world. We are trying to become all-powerful and omniscient. Imagine the ultimate fulfilment of that desire. When we are in control of everything, and we have great panels of push buttons whereby the slightest touch fulfils every wish, what will we want then?” 

He goes on to answer his own question:

“We will eventually want to have a special red button marked “surprise” built into the panel.”

He’s right; without them life would be dull indeed.

It's something we don't really think about, but we should. It seems to be a general rule that nasty surprises outnumber nice ones in our lives. Our natural reaction when they come along is to complain and ask 'why us?'

But if we stop for a moment and accept that it’s just life being life, then perhaps we wouldn't be so quick to bemoan our misfortune.

None of us knows what lies around the corner. We do what we can to navigate our way through life, planning, directing, hoping. But ultimately, it’s all guess work. 

And in any case, even if it was possible, would you really want to know? What if Mystic Meg really could ‘clear the mists’ in her crystal ball and map out the rest of your life in every detail. Would you pay your shilling and enter the tent?

If your answer is yes, think again.

Just be thankful that you don’t know.

William S. Burroughs once said:

If you weren't surprised by your life you wouldn't be alive. Life is surprise. 

Not knowing what’s next should delight and motivate us. There are some wonderful surprises waiting for us down the road. That’s exciting.

OK, so not everything that comes along will bring joy, but without the lows you can’t appreciate the highs.

The Stoics gave us some great advice about this.

Epictetus said:

Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will — then your life will flow well. 

In other words there’s nothing wrong with using the paddle to keep your canoe steady and facing the right way, but ultimately, you still have to go with the flow. The alternative is trying to paddle upstream into the rapids. That won’t end well, at best you’re going to end up exhausted and back where you started.

The Stoics knew that the ability to recognise what we can and cannot control are key to how we react and, therefore, key to being happy.

So, here’s the question to ask yourself every time something unexpected and unwelcome occurs.

Is this within my control?

If it is — Great! You’re free to choose what to do about it.

If it isn’t — Do what you can (which may be nothing), then let it go.

Take this on board, put it into practice and you’ll discover something wonderful.

You’re in control of one of the most important aspects of your life; your happiness.