Let’s talk about control. It’s a huge topic, to be sure. There’s control over yourself, control over others, and control over the past, present, and future, just to name a few of the ways we employ the concept of control. I can’t reasonably cover all those applications in one blog post, so let’s start with self-control and see where that leads.
I have heard it said in a variety of ways that control is just an illusion. I think your perspective depends upon what you are trying to control and how you perceive it. For instance, to say that you are trying to take control over your health may be a delusion, recognizing that none of us can say with certainty that we won’t get cancer or have a stroke or get hit by a car and die instantly. We don’t have that level of control over the outcomes. There is no guarantee that the randomness of an illness, or a disease acquired through the genetic lottery, or the actions of another person might not do us in. In this way control may, in fact, be illusory.
Maybe we’ve set our sights too high when we focus on total and ultimate control over ourselves. We humans do tend to take an all-or-nothing approach, despite our awareness of the ever-present middle where most of us reside. Maybe we can achieve a state of being that provides most of the desirable effects of the total control concept without the stress of always having to stick to the plan. Maybe we should focus on managing the daily minutiae and cease to concern ourselves with overall control. Most of us would agree that life is unpredictable; we don’t have any way to know exactly what will happen on a given day. Yet, on how many days, while going about the mundane tasks of our routine, do things work out pretty much the way that we’d hoped? I’d say most of them, wouldn’t you? I mean, the really bad shit does not happen all that often, though the effects may linger. The little inconveniences along the way are just that. We are not derailed by them, we are merely annoyed. To return to the health analogy, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that our diet, exercise, and other lifestyle habits can have a huge impact on our health, though these things don’t preclude us from taking ill altogether. When we treat our bodies more like temples and less like trash compactors, our risk of many ailments is greatly decreased. So, is it possible that the way to achieve the most control over the big picture is to ignore it and focus instead on the little things?
I don’t know about you, but all this setting of goals and making of long-term plans that is de rigeuer in our society has often overwhelmed me. I mean, making a grocery list reduces my stress by ensuring that I procure what I need for the week. Making plans for five years from now places a silent mandate on all my activities in the present and subtly adds stress. Once a goal is set, it pervades every aspect of my daily life. I feel obliged to keep on top of it, to have it ever in my sights. I mean, I wouldn’t want to be labeled a failure, right? When making a decision today about where to live, what to study, or what job to take, that five-year plan remains a major consideration. How will I get to there from here? I need to follow the plan, right? When present circumstances indicate that it’s best to do one thing, I have been known to choose another because that fucking five-year plan is looming large and I’m terrified of what it will mean if I don’t get there. Must. Achieve. Goals.
How often have your five-year or ten-year plans worked out as you envisioned them? Almost never, you say? Yeah, me neither. Looking back, I can’t think of a single long-term goal that I achieved. OK, that’s not entirely true, I did recently complete my undergraduate degree after a 25-year pause. I assure you that was not the original plan. It’s rather a miracle that I finished my education at all, but let’s not go down that rabbit hole. Instead, let’s look at what happened. I set a goal to get a college education while I was in high school, as many of us do. I joined the military to obtain help with tuition expenses and expected (see what happened there?) to have a degree before my first enlistment was up. I did take some classes over several years, but military life and motherhood proved too demanding and something had to give. My education was set aside. In the end, my tuition benefits expired before I got back to college, and I have the student loans to prove it. None of that worked out according to plan. It did, eventually, work out. It does not look anything like I thought it would. Can you relate?
In those interim years, I suffered a lot of stress for having that goal of college, and made a lot of decisions based upon how best I thought I could achieve it at the time. It impacted my choices about relationships, parenting, military assignments, you name it. Always, there was the thought of obtaining that college education. I made several attempts at taking classes while working and raising a child and was unable to stick with it. I wasted time trying to fit the square peg of my life into the round hole of getting a college education. It wasn’t working out, it was stressing me out. I was missing out on what was going on in my life right then by being preoccupied with that fucking goal. Eventually, I gave up the dream and resigned myself to not getting the higher education I wanted. It was sad, but for a while it was also a relief. Later, it grew into a resentment. I told myself that I had failed, that it was over, and it was time to move on. I even adopted a mantra that there was nothing I wanted to do with my life that required a degree. This then evolved into the claim that if ever there were something I wanted to do with my life that required a degree, I would get one. I didn’t recognize that I was building a defense to what I considered my own failure. I just needed to be able to deflect any questions about it. It hurt and I did not want to talk about it.
After leaving active duty, I bounced through a number of jobs, trying careers on for size, until settling on running a business with the man in my life at the time. After more than a decade of that, I knew it was time to move onto something that would challenge me intellectually and allow my future work to contribute meaningfully to my community. I wanted to learn about the social justice issues that interested me. In the interim years, the whole online education thing exploded and BOOM! Here I am, a college graduate. I didn’t see it happening that way, but it worked out. Along the way, I discovered that I like learning, that I enjoy research, and that the academic setting provides opportunities for me to use my penchant for writing purposefully. But because the thinking about long-term goals is so deeply rooted in my psyche, I allowed myself to set some more and put all my efforts into achieving them. One degree wasn’t enough, I needed to go all the way. Needless to say, when circumstances did not allow me to stick with my plans, it devastated me. I am in the midst of clearing that wreckage now.
You see, I have been living under the mistaken belief that success equates to achieving goals. No one ever suggested to me that I didn’t have to choose between a college education or no college education, that there was a middle ground. That formal learning could be – perhaps should be – life-long. It never occurred to me that it was perfectly fine to set aside plans and address the life that was right in front of me (some folks call this spontaneity, something that has always eluded me). I didn’t understand that I could alter my plans and not be a failure for doing so. That may sound naïve, but it was my reality. Though I may have understood on some level that it was perfectly reasonable to adjust my plans as life evolved, the message planted deep inside me was, “achieve your goals or you will be a failure.” That deeply held conviction was driving me, despite its fallacy. I felt I had something to prove, that my worth as a person was founded in this idea that outcomes would determine my value. No one ever told me that efforts were more valuable than outcomes, a belief I now falteringly hold. I didn’t understand that control could be found in letting go of plans and embracing the here-and-now. I really didn’t understand that until these last six or seven years and, frankly, I am still learning that lesson. Old habits die hard.
How do we free ourselves from the burden of these rigid long-term plans and regain the self-worth that’s tied up in them? Epictetus said, “Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.” The question we must address, then, is “What lies beyond our control?” I say most everything is beyond our control except, perhaps, our thoughts. As evidenced by my own thoughts regarding goals and failure mentioned previously, even those are heavily influenced by the bio-psycho-social soup that is our inherent and experiential lot. Perhaps everything is beyond our control. What, then, can we do? We can address what is right in front of us this very moment and then address the next thing after that. One foot in front of the other not with a long-term goal in mind, but instead with a purpose to do our very best in this moment, even if the task in front of us today is just folding the laundry. It is not a PhD, or a solution to mass incarceration, but there is satisfaction to be found in the successful folding of laundry, if you embrace it. Other opportunities will come. They always do.
Chop wood, carry water. Happy holidays, my fellow travelers.
Here’s more on being present from Michael J. Formica and Psychology Today. (This author has no affiliation with either, it’s just good food for thought.)