The illusion of control

The heat’s back today, and it’s too hot to walk. 

But there’s good news too. The aging AC in my building finally expired, transforming my office into a sauna with sofas.  So I had to stay home. 

Like a snow day, but with sweat.

Anyway, I’m sitting here at my desk with a fan at my elbow, reading chirpy blogs filled with excellent advice about how to transform my neuroses and finances, when I hear footsteps. 

Guess who? Bert growls.

***

Oh, please.  Take the day off, can’t you?

I want to chat. 

What about?

 About the other day.  After we talked I felt better.

Great.  You’re welcome.  Go take a nap.

Planning on it.  First I have a question.

Of course you do.

Patience, please.  Your monkey’s your monkey.

(Sigh.)  What’s your question?

Why did I feel better?

Come again?

Nothing changed.  All the stuff I was complaining about stayed exactly the same.  I felt better anyway.  Why?  What did you do?

I helped you detach from the illusion of control.

Oh.  (Pause.)  What the hell does that mean?

You were attached to an idea that was making you unhappy.  I just helped you move your attention elsewhere.

What idea was I attached to?

That you had to solve your problems.

But I did have to.  I still do.

Not in order to feel better.   For that you had to detach. 

“Detach,” meaning…

Let go of. 

How does that help?

How does it help to put down any load you’re carrying?

Oh.  Okay.  But the problems are still there.

Right.  So?

I still have to solve them.

Let’s say you do that.  What then?

I don’t follow.

You’ve solved all your problems.  What do you do now?

That’s silly.  Nobody can solve all their problems.

Exactly.  At best we exchange old ones for new ones.  And to believe anything else is an illusion.

The illusion of control. 

Right.   

And you believe that?  Control is an illusion?

Most of the time, yes.

But wait.  Some problems are solvable, right?

Sure.

So we can have some control. 

I’d say it differently.  I’d say there are times when we’re able to stop chasing control.  That’s not the same as actually having it. 

You lost me.

Yes, that happens.

(Pause.)  Let me ask it another way.  Why do you believe control is an illusion? 

Why do you think?

I don’t know.  Anyway, I’m not convinced it is.

Oh?  Have enough control, do you?

No.  Of course not.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

Right.  You just have to try a bit harder.

Right.

Do you know anybody who has enough control?

I’ve never asked.  But I doubt it.

Me too.  So why assume control is possible?

Well, it must be. 

Because?

(Silence.)

Look.  The idea of control is what might be called a necessary fiction.  It’s a myth, a story we tell ourselves in order to go on. 

Go on living.

Yes.  It gives us a sense of security and a sense of direction.  And it really is necessary, because facing our lack of control is terrifying for most people.  But it really is a fiction too. 

But why?  Why can’t I ever have control? 

Do you remember the four laws?

Yes and no.   I mean I do, but I keep forgetting them.

Yes, that’s normal.  The third law is

3. Behind all controlling is the wish to control feelings.

Yes, I remember now.

And that’s why control is mostly an illusion. 

Why?

Because feelings are mostly uncontrollable. 

Wait.   That’s not true.  If it were, we’d all run amuck.   I’d punch out everyone that makes me angry, or seduce every woman I find attractive, or…

You’re confusing feelings with behavior.  

Sure, behavior is controllable.  Sure, we can choose to express our feelings or hold them in.  We can split ourselves into controller and controlled. 

What I’m saying is, ultimately feelings are stronger.  Ultimately emotional life is beyond our control.  No one stays in control of their emotional life. 

But you know this.  You sit with me in that consulting room every day.  You know what happens to people who rely on control. 

They get sick.

Right.  Anxious, depressed, addicted. 

Divorced.

That too.

So what’s the alternative?  

To controlling your emotional life?

Yes.

You know that too.

Remind me.

Can you control the weather?

Of course not.

Is that a problem?

No.  

Why not?

Because I can handle the weather.  I know how to respond to it.  It rains, I wear a raincoat.  It snows, I wear galoshes.  It’s hot and the office AC crashes, I stay home with a fan in my face. 

Exactly.  Feelings are like weather.  Not a problem when you learn how to respond to them.

Respond to.  Not control.

Right.  

Which means…

Well, it starts with listening to them.  Listening for instructions, I call it.   Which I’m about to do.

How?

By ending this conversation.   We just passed 800 words. 

Oh.  Crap.   Lost some readers, I imagine.

That’s okay.  The ones who are interested will come back. 

Can I come back?

I expect you will, whether or not I give you permission.

(To be continued.)

 

 

 

 

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7 responses to “The illusion of control

  • thesinglemomblog

    I hope you can come back. I sure will be back. Thanks! 😀

  • marsha

    I love your sense of humor.

  • Charles

    I think this post can be summed up as, “Some problems you can control, but most you can’t. For those you can’t, you can stop them from making you feel bad.”

    And in subsequent posts you’ll tell us how to stop feeling bad about uncontrollable problems. Right?

    So how do we identify a controllable problem?

  • fritzfreud

    I would sum it up differently.

    We tend to regard feelings as problems. But what do you call a problem that has no solution? (Think: weather. Or: aging. Or: death.)

    You call it a fact of life.

    We need to redefine feelings in a way that allows us to stop trying to “solve” them, and to make room for them instead.

  • walter

    I really like that idea that feelings like the weather; They can be prepared for, tolerated, enjoyed — but not controlled. patience helps.

    If you don’t like the weather then just wait a minute
    (some new englander)

    whatever the weather
    we (can) weather the weather
    whether we like it or not
    (little bear)

  • Rob

    Really great stuff Steve,

  • Listening for instructions « Monkeytraps

    […] So.  Last time you said something about listening for instructions. […]

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