Control. Woman freeing birds


Life is to be lived, not controlled…

~Ralph Ellison

Are you driven by a need for control?

How much control over the details of your life do you actually have?

Sometimes parts of our lives can seem very much out of our control. For some, this can be a very uncomfortable feeling. We might feel an intense urge to regain control and get things back on track. But the truth is that our lives are never really in our control. If we can learn to accept that, we will be much more likely to work with that reality and not constantly struggle for control.

Think of life like a bumper car ride. When we are pushing another car, we may feel like we’re in control, but the car can swerve in a different direction, or pull away, or push back. When this happens, we may feel we’ve lost control of the other car, but in truth, we never really had it. Rather than control, it may be more helpful to think of our words and actions (and bumper car skills) as influence. We can affect where the other cars go, even if we don’t have control over exactly where they end up, or exactly what path they travel.

Another helpful way to think about control is through recognizing that nothing in our lives is permanent. No matter how hard we try to hang on to something, everything in our lives will eventually disappear or evolve into something else. We may feel like we have temporary control, but again, that’s an illusion. Once we accept and embrace impermanence, it can give us a sense of freedom: freedom from the need for control, freedom from the anxiety associated with the feeling of losing control.

But what implications might this recognition have for the way we live our lives? Should we still strive for security, a stable family life, employment? Of course, the answer is yes, but the nuances of those dynamics will be different. We can approach each of these things with an open mind and a flexible attitude. If we can escape the idea that our lives have to conform to a rigid ideal and embrace the fact that unexpected events will occur, we will be able to roll with the punches and make the most of new opportunities. If we can embrace the change, we can take advantage of new and interesting people and circumstances. If we fight to get back to where we were, we will miss all that.

It can be helpful to think of how we try to control our lives in terms of how feasible control is in these circumstances.

One big way we try to control things is to own them. We buy stuff: houses, cars, equipment, toys. Some might argue that if we own something, then we have control over it. But for each of the things we own, it doesn’t take too much imagination to think of circumstances in which we might lose it. A house fire, a car accident, a financial setback—any number of things could take these things away from us. The feeling of control we have when we own something is a feeling that we create.

Relationships are another part of our lives that we think we can control. When we interact with our friends or our significant other, we have certain expectations of how we think they will behave—certain expectations about the dynamics of that relationship. Although we choose our friendships based on the dynamics and behaviors early in those relationships, we will invariably come to a point in every relationship where things don’t go as we expect. So how do we react? We can bristle at the behavior and try to force the person in the direction of the behaviors we expect, or we can explore the new dynamics and think about interesting directions they might take. In some cases, we may decide to end certain relationships. We all evolve as people, and our relationships will never be static, and we have to think about that as a positive thing. Our relationships are a journey—never a destination.

Finally, our life circumstances—our jobs, activities, outlooks—will also change over time. Even if we’re in the same job and engage in the same activities throughout our lives, we are changing. It’s not the same person doing the same job; every day it’s a slightly different version of that person.

Even if we could control the people, things, and events in our lives, would we really want to? It’s the unexpected that makes our lives interesting. It’s the challenge of addressing something that we’ve never seen before. The excitement of trying something we’ve never experienced before. All of these make life more meaningful and fulfilling than it would be if we had control over everything.

Let things happen, watch where they go, and enjoy the ride.

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