Are you the guy with the long white beard in Michaelangelo’s painting? If not, I have some shocking news for you. Brace yourself. Sorry, but you are not all-powerful and you can’t control everything.
Yes, yes, I can hear you thinking: “Wow, are you running out of ideas already? What’s your next stunning insight, that water is wet? Why am I reading your stupid blog?”
Well, smartass, turns out that this stupidly obvious fact is not at all obvious to everyone, and that it’s not even obvious to you or I much of the time. Admit it. We may not forget that water is wet but, for some reason, it’s actually really easy to forget that we can’t control everything.
From the moment we wake in the morning we start ruminating about the past as though our rumination has the power to change it; and we worry about the future – far beyond what is useful for mere planning and preparation – as though our worrying has the power to change that.
We react with shock and fury when other people don’t behave the way we expect them to, as though we have the power to control other people.
For some reason, we all have just a little dose of the God Complex.
the god complex
Our culture certainly doesn’t help. The mantra of the day is “Believe in yourself and you can achieve anything!” Anything. We preach this mantra across all media platforms and in our education system.
It remains the central pillar of many of our self-help books and motivational speakers. It’s the “take home lesson” of every reality TV contest winner who has apparently already forgotten the hundreds of other poor souls who also believed in themselves but didn’t make it.
Now don’t get me wrong, my problem is not with the “believe in yourself” part, just with the “anything” part.
As though social, political, and economic conditions don’t matter. As though there are no physical and logical constraints on individuals. As though we can all be billionaires if we just choose to without causing mass inflation and economic collapse (and if I just poured a big bucket of ice water all over your dreams there, well I’m sorry).
Yet just to put this mantra on steroids, we now also have “the law of attraction,” which says that the “frequency” of our thoughts “attract” what we are thinking into our lives, that we can essentially control the world with the power of our minds.1
I would call this an “extreme” example, but Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret has been translated into at least 50 different languages and has sold 30 million copies worldwide, making it one of the most best-selling self-help books of all time.
Clearly, telling people that they have the power of God strikes a deep chord.
And why wouldn’t it? The human need to feel in control of an uncontrollable universe goes right back to our earliest cave dwelling ancestors, who thought it was a good idea to throw virgins into volcanoes to make sure that there would be no more earthquakes.
All superstition can be said to be a natural human response to the fact that the universe is sometimes a stochastic terrorist, striking us at random, inspiring the kind of fear that makes an irrational belief in our own omnipotence not just possible, but popular.
But what’s the problem with people thinking they’re the Master of the Universe? Isn’t it positive? Well I’m sure that believing you’re a god is probably fantastic for your self-esteem; at least in the short term. The problem is that it so naturally leads to victim-blaming.
Because if you are in control of everything that happens to you, then regardless of actual circumstances, it is you who are to blame for being mugged in the street; you who are to blame for being struck by lightning; you who are to blame for being poor, etc. etc. etc.
You just did not believe in yourself enough, or you just weren’t putting the right thoughts out into the universe. Not only are you a terrible person for having bad things happen to you, but the real causes of your woes are never addressed.
And that is not so positive. That is toxic positivity gone mad.
Yet there are plenty of people who seem happy to bite the bullet on this one. There are entire political movements that seem to be built on victim blaming. Which is hardly surprising, since there could be nothing that individuals in power would love more than a society of people who will happily blame themselves – no matter what – rather than them.
And then we have Byrne’s own famous response to the 2004 South Asian tsunami – which killed over 227,000 people – telling us with all apparent sincerity that the tsunami victims “attracted” the disaster to them with their thoughts; essentially, that they brought it on themselves.2
That may seem a callous, heartless and despicable thing to say – and it is – but to be fair, Byrne is just being consistent with what she believes. She had to say it; and that’s the problem. The fact that such beliefs force you to talk this way about disaster-victims should really give you pause.
a reality-based alternative
As I say, I’m not here to tell you to not believe in yourself. I believe in believing in yourself to change what you can in fact change. I’m just pretty sure that believing you can change things you can’t change is inevitably going to lead to failure and feeling bad about yourself for, essentially, not being an all-powerful superhuman god.
I believe that is stupid.
And I’m hardly the first to talk like this. There is a healthier, more reality-based alternative to dealing with the uncertainty of the world than adopting a God Complex, and it has been offered by many of the world’s great traditions- we just forget.
And that alternative is, simply put, to let go of what you can’t control.
The central goal of Buddhism is “non-attachment,” the state of relinquishing your need to control everyone and everything, to have everything go your way. Anger, fear, hate, and so on are simply the result of things and people not being the way you, personally, want. Acknowledging the reality that you don’t control everything is as liberating as it is difficult.
This state of non-attachment is cultivated through mindfulness training; in grounding yourself in the present moment, in experiencing a state where the present moment is enough, just as it is, you simply don’t feel the need to control everything that happens. The insecure ego that fears the world and craves a God Complex is just gone.
In this state, it is far easier to just step back, take a breath, and calmly see what you actually can and can’t control.
The Greek and Roman Stoics call this same concept “the dichotomy of control.” Epictetus said: “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”3 Coming from a former slave, that’s quite a statement.
Following Epictetus’ advice is the thing that gives us perspective on almost everything else that is worth thinking about. Whatever your current situation, it tells you get on with the productive task of figuring out what you can in fact do, instead of wasting your time pouring energy into worry about things beyond your control.
But for the Stoics – like the Buddhists – dividing the world into the things we can and can’t control is more than just good advice. It is the centrepiece on the mantle of their entire worldview. It is the reason they focus on internal goals over external goals.
Internal goals are those to do with becoming a better, wiser, happier person. External goals, on the other hand, are all about acquiring wealth, power, status, the approval of others, etc. The difference is that internal goals are largely under your control, while external goals depend on myriad people and circumstances that simply aren’t; no matter how many thoughts you put into the universe.
And of course, Christianity has its Serenity Prayer, well-worn in today’s 12 step recovery programs: “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.”4
There is a reason this prayer is said to grant serenity; there is a profound sense of peace that comes from humility, from acknowledging that you are not all-powerful and therefore don’t have to concern yourself with what can’t be changed.
If every utterance of “Believe in yourself and you can achieve anything” could be replaced with this, then our world would be a much happier, wiser place.
The trick is the “wisdom” part. We might well be mistaken about what we can and can’t change. I might think I have the power to build a mansion or to change the mind of a conspiracy theorist, only to (almost inevitably) learn better the hard way. Or, I might think I don’t have the power to change something that I can, in fact, change with a bit of effort.
But that’s just life. You use the best of your knowledge of the facts and circumstances to make your decisions in any given moment. The fact that it can sometimes be hard to figure out is no reason to wrap yourself in cotton wool and believe the impossible… and the dangerous.
So give yourself a break. Accept your relative impotence in the face of the infinite cosmos and relax knowing that you only have to worry about the miniscule amount of it that you can actually control. You will be a happier – and better – person for it.
- Byrne, R. (2006). The Secret. Atria Books.
- Stuff. (2010, September 8). Don’t Leave Life All Up to the Universe. https://www.stuff.co.nz/nelson-mail/lifestyle-entertainment/arts/4108117/Don-t-leave-life-all-up-to-the-universe
- Epictetus, Enchiridion, Dover Publications (2004).
- Hudson, T. (2012). The Serenity Prayer. Upper Room.