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How much of life do you think is beyond our control? As disempowering as it may sound, I think anyone would agree that a lot of it is.
Since COVID-19 hit, it’s become clear that many plans made for the year 2020 are not going to eventuate. Social engagements have been cancelled or postponed. Businesses have closed. Goals have been put on the backburner. What once seemed like reasonable travel plans could now be more accurately described as fantasy. Even in the absence of a worldwide pandemic, our circumstances, health, projects, finances and relationships are never totally within our control.
The famous Serenity Prayer by American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, states: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
To know the difference isn’t always difficult, but accepting what we cannot change can be a huge challenge.
Have you ever waited to go on a ride at an amusement park, only to be told as soon as you got to the front of the queue, “Sorry kiddo, you’re not tall enough for this”?
That’s happened to me on a few occasions, but there was one time when the guy holding the ‘how-tall-you-have-to-be’ measuring stick let me on the ride anyway. After it was pointed out how very close I was to the acceptable height, he conceded and let me get on the ride, which looked a bit like a mini train. I sat in the driver’s seat, took hold of the wheel, and promptly began to freak out as soon as the ‘train’ took off. I was stressed about where to go, and how to turn properly on the right track when there was an intersection. Perhaps I was too small for such a big ride, after all!
As it turned out, I wasn’t even driving that thing. It was automated, the track was set, and my steering skills or lack thereof made no difference. Everything was under control, but not by me. There’s no doubt that the ride would have been more relaxing if I knew I wasn’t really driving it.
Later, I went on the Pirate Ship ride and held on for dear life as it turned upside down. There were other people who were laughing with joy and throwing their arms in the air. I knew on a rational level that my tense muscles and tight grip did nothing to stop me falling. That unnecessary effort interfered with my ability to literally let go and enjoy the experience.
Sometimes we do need to take the wheel, so to speak. I experienced the opposite of that mini train ride when I first got into a dodgem car. I didn’t realise it was up to me to push the pedal and dodge the other kids who seemed determined to ram their cars into mine. That was a memorably bad ride.
We need to take responsibility for what we have control over, so we can stay focused and ‘steer’ where we want to end up. Yet if something is beyond our control, then we may as well take our hands off and go with the flow. It can save us a lot of pointless tension and craziness to know and accept the difference.
One example that can be used to illustrate this point further is that of a bride on her wedding day. How many stories have been told about otherwise sane and emotionally well-adjusted women turning into a ‘Bridezilla’ in the lead up to that special ceremony, wanting to control every last detail and stressing out when things don’t go to plan? I’ve known more than a few people who have opted out of being bridesmaids at the last minute after seeing their friend morph into a Bridezilla.
I was in the bridal party for a relative who was the most chilled-out bride imaginable. There were no tears, no losing the plot. Other than choosing her preferred colour for the bridesmaids’ dresses and shoes, she allowed everyone full reign to do and wear whatever they wanted. The makeup artist and hair stylist commented that they had never seen such a calm bride-to-be. They weren’t accustomed to being told, “I’m not fussed, I’m happy for them to choose,” when asked how she wanted her bridesmaids to look. She organised most of the wedding, but saw no point worrying over how everything would turn out – at a certain point, that was beyond her control. As a result, this bride had more energy for the things she did have control over: enthusiasm to interact with the wedding guests, to have fun during the ceremony and subsequent reception, and perhaps most importantly, to be fully present with her new husband!
Yes, a lot of things in life are beyond our control. We can’t control the weather, how others behave, or what opportunities or problems show up for us.
At the same time, we can control how we respond to anything that comes our way. Our outer circumstances may be uncontrollable, but anything to do with our inner experience is fair game when it comes to our ability to change it. We have the power to shift our beliefs, thoughts, goals, focus, and ultimately how we feel, for the most part.
How we sit down and experience the ride of life is within our control. Whether we decide to be more hands-on or hands-off is within our control. Whether we’re friendly to the people seated next to us (or appreciate the silence if we’re riding solo) is within our control. And if we choose to do those things well and let go of what we’re powerless over, then when it’s time to take action, we’ll be in a stronger position to do so. We wouldn’t have wasted all our energy or turned into nervous wrecks over things we tried to control but couldn’t.
During these strange times, the choice is there to consciously surrender* what we are unable to control. Let’s pay more attention to where we can make a real impact, and then “have the courage to change the things” we can.
*There’s a whole chapter on the topic of surrender in my book Channel. You can check it out here if you haven’t already.
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