Control What You Can

An article in last week’s New York Times reported on a focus group of independent voters who saw, in politics, in the media, and in business symptoms of a larger societal ailment. They cited the breakdown of civil society: the disappearance of common courtesy, the relentless stream of data from digital devices, the proliferation of lawsuits, and the insidious influence of media on their children. Who among us hasn’t shared this feeling of living in a world gone out-of-control. Certainly a world gone out of our control. Add to the phenomena just mentioned two others, huge but over which we also have no real power: climate change, and the elimination of millions of American jobs. How can we possibly be at peace in a world that is seemingly spinning further and further out of our grasp?

One part of the answer rests in the acknowledgment that we as individuals are able to influence very little of what goes on in our lives. Should despair follow from this recognition? Not if we keep in mind that “ordinary” individuals, with precious few exceptions, have never had control over their circumstances, or the ability to impact their societies. Yet countless billions of lives have been well-lived.

But a larger part of the answer to the question of how to live more at peace within a world spinning out-of-control is to keep your eyes firmly on the aspects of your life that you do control. What are some of these?

Start With Yourself

One of the primary themes of my blog posts, and my work in session with clients, is the importance of working on directing your thoughts. This is a very powerful form of control, and one that with practice can be effectively utilized by anyone. I use “directing” rather than :controlling” when speaking of thoughts because we in fact have very little control over the thoughts that bubble up from the unconscious, or seep into our heads from the environment around us. But we do have control over how long we want to stick with any particular thought, and we also have control over alternative places to direct our thinking if we don’t like where our mind has come to rest.

There is also great value in monitoring and controlling our behavior, allowing us to demonstrate that we can impact the direction, form, and content of our lives. The kind of behavioral I’m talking about monitoring is behavior whose consistent application demonstrates to ourselves and to the world that we are living an intentional life, not a random one. The behaviors to examine offer so many opportunities to exercise more control over our lives. Five examples, ranging from foundational to seemingly minor:

  1. Do we think before making commitments, and are we rigorous in keeping them? If not, why are we bothering to make commitments at all?
  2. Do we choose to repeat gossip, or perhaps even initiate it? If so, what kind of reputation and relationships are we shaping for ourselves?
  3. In what tone do we wish to address others, particularly those in “subservient” positions (customer service people, for example)? Dismissively or with respect? Which creates more of the feeling that we want to carry with us as often as possible?
  4. If you pass an empty McDonald’s bag or beer can on the street, do you pick it up and dispose of it properly, or do you “tsk, Tsk” and walk right past?
  5. If you’re stuck in traffic, do you start to seethe or do you remind yourself that the situation is out of your hands, and move on to think about something more productive or peaceful?