This has been a bit of a burning concept in my brain recently, especially after I’ve committed myself to read at least one passage from Stoic philosophy every day. Although it’s only been 13 days into the New Year, I have already seen one topic crop up more than a few times: knowing what you have control over, knowing what you don’t have control over, and knowing the difference. The last part is often the most challenging.
The weather is often a hot topic of conversation here in the UK – probably because it is not uncommon to have all four seasons in one day. I suppose that makes it mildly exciting, and so it provides the basis of many conversation starters – particularly with people that we don’t know all too well. A post from Very British Problems sums it up quite nicely:
Things Brits can never believe:
How hot it is
How cold it is
How dark it is
How light it is
That it’s nearly Summer
That it’s nearly Christmas
It’s fascinating to me, especially as I find myself participating in it regularly, how two vastly complicated humans with incredible backgrounds, desires, circumstances, problems, dreams are often limited to talking about how dark it is. Yeah, I noticed that too.
But I suppose it would be a bit weird if the guy behind you in the queue just started to tell you about his dreams of becoming an astronaut and how he can’t seem to get a foot into the industry. Maybe you would quite like that, maybe you wouldn’t, who knows…
Enough of the digression, the point is that not only do our conversations tend to be dominated by things outside of our control, but our own well-being, stress and mental capacity are often strained by things that are completely out of our control too. It’s tiring, it’s stressful and most of all, it’s completely pointless.
I have this weird thing where I have to do something elaborate when I am locking the door just so that I remember for sure that I locked the door. That can be scrunching my face 3 times, licking my lips clockwise and then backwards, you name it. If it’s out of the ordinary, then it works. If I remember doing the face scrunching, then I definitely locked the door. All hell breaks loose in my mind though if I forgot to do anything weird and locked up on auto-pilot. Wherever I am going, I can guarantee that 80% of the journey is me worrying about whether or not I locked the door.
What I have started realising and getting better at: when I am 10 miles from home, there is nothing I can do about locking the door anymore, so it’s best to forget it.
It frees up SO much worry and stress. You realise that whatever it is can’t be changed at that moment, so it isn’t going to occupy any precious brain space at that moment either.
That is a strange example, and you might have your own strange example too, but what are the more common things that we forget we don’t have control over and so should stop worrying about?
The externals – what you can’t control
One of the biggest things that we worry and stress about are events and things. And you guessed it, the majority of the time we have absolutely ZERO control over them.
I could name hundreds. Here are just a few to get your brain ticking:
- The outcome of a football game
- The latest political controversy
- whether or not someone will like you
- whether or not you are a perfect fit for the job
There’s nothing wrong with supporting a football team. There’s nothing wrong with being involved with politics. It’s when we form our identities around these things and let these external events that we have absolutely no control over determine our happiness and the contentment of our days. Turning on the news every night is a source of misery for most people because they are seeing things that they have no control over and becoming worried, stressed and often saddened about them.
I’m not saying close your ears to the world, I am saying realise what you are in control of and what you are not, and let what you are in control of determine your actions.
Emotions and feelings
Emotions are another key aspect of the human experience that we have next to no control of. This may come as a surprise to many people, but is it really?
Think about when you got cut off by someone in traffic and you swore at them. Did you think ‘damn, that guy just cut me off which is an immoral thing to do. I should probably get angry with him. To express this anger I will use an expletive and hope that he hears me from inside my moving metal box.’
Of course not.
While this may be your sub-conscious thought process slowed down 1000x, the emotion of anger just sort of, happens. We don’t have an on or off switch.
The same can be said about accomplishing something that we have been working on for a long period of time. Clicking ‘Submit’ on an essay or submitting a lengthy report often produces the ‘weight off the shoulders’ feeling and immense satisfaction. We don’t control that emotion of satisfaction. We can’t replicate the feeling of doing something hard when we do something easy. These things come from deep down and from places we don’t really understand.
When we realise we aren’t really in control of these things, we can let them just be, instead of resisting or fighting an endless, losing battle for control.
In much of the same way as emotions, our thoughts are completely unpredictable and we should be aware of this fact. I challenge any novice meditator like myself, or anyone really, to sit down in silence for JUST 2 MINUTES and try not to think about anything specific, just observe what pops up.
You will realise that your brain is a mad-house.
It rarely ever stops doing anything and anyone who has lost a good night sleep to worrying about work knows that no matter how hard we consciously try, we can’t just switch and focus on another thing. We can’t just flick an off-switch and say goodnight either. We can get better at re-focusing, but even we, the mighty species who put a man on the moon and invented the pizza, can’t even manage to control what our thoughts are. Thoughts that we work with every hour of every single day.
Internals – what you do actually have control over
So if we don’t have control over the events that happen to us, our emotions or what our thoughts are, then what on earth do we have control over?
What we have control over is our actions and reactions to these things. And that is extremely powerful when you start to apply it.
Here is an extract from the Daily Stoic that sums up this concept:
Today, you won’t control the external events that happen. Is that scary? A little, but it’s balanced when we see that we can control our opinion about those events. You decide whether they’re good or bad, whether they’re fair or unfair. You don’t control the situation, but you control what you think about it.See how that works? Every single thing that is outside your control – the outside world, other people, luck, karma, whatever – still presents a corresponding area that is in your control. This alone gives us plenty to manage, plenty of power.Best of all, an honest understanding of what is within our control provides real clarity about the world: all we have is our own mind.
The single most important practice in Stoicism (and probably life) is the ability to differentiate between what we can change and what we can’t.
What we have influence over and what we do not.
Being able to willingly accept what is out of your control
A flight is delayed because of weather – no amount of yelling at an airline representative will end a storm. No amount of sulking all evening will change the fact that your team lost. No amount of punishing yourself for not being happy when you ‘should’ be happy will make you happy. No matter how hard you try, you can’t make someone like you.
And on top of that, time spent hurling yourself at these immovable objects is time not spent on the things we can change, such as the choices that we make today and how we choose to react to these situations.
Throwing all of your energy at things that are out of your control is also exhausting when the energy could be better spent on better things. Energy that could be spent on things that are in your control like cultivating better relationships with others and yourself. Building something worthwhile. Seeing problems as challenges, and so on.
How we react to certain situations, to certain people and to ourselves is the only thing that we have absolute control over in this game of life.
And it is all that we could possibly need.