You Are Not Powerless: Focus on What You Can Control

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Let me tell you the story of a man named Viktor Frankl.

In 1942, the shadow of the Third Reich lay heavy on Europe. When the Nazis finally came for Frankl and his family, it seemed all was lost. His father perished in the Thereseinstadt concentration camp. Two years later Frankl and the rest of his family were driven to Auschwitz, where he lost his mother. Later, his wife died in the Bergen-Belsen camp.

Everywhere he turned there was the barbed wire, the armed guards, the gas chambers, the mountains and the trenches of the dead, the stench of sickness and decay; in short, the creation of hell on earth. Yet even here, somehow – you could say miraculously – Frankl had an epiphany. There was just one thing in this world that the Nazis could never take from him: his power to choose how he responded to the unimaginable trauma they had inflicted upon him and his.

And what he chose was to hold on to the idea that his life had meaning; that beyond the senseless waste of life that surrounded him on every front, he still had a reason for existing, for carrying on in the world.

Frankl survived the camps and went on to describe his experiences in his memoir, which has been described as one of the most influential psychology books of all time.1

what you CAN CONTROL

Previously I wrote about the importance of letting go of what you can’t control. There’s no clearer example of that than Frankl. Yet it may be what Frankl teaches us about the flipside of that coin that matters more: what you do control. After all, if you’re a fool to think you control everything you are equally a fool to think you control nothing.

No matter what your external circumstance, there is one thing you control – assuming a psychologically healthy mind – and it makes all the difference in the world: yourself. After all, it is inside your mind that you experience the world and it is there that you experience well-being and suffering. So while you cannot control the world you can, like Frankl, control your response to the world.

Psychological research tells us that those who assume that control of their well-being lies outside of themselves, see themselves as perpetual victims, blame everyone else for everything, and tend to be (unsurprisingly) more all-round miserable. Those who assume that control of their well-being lies inside themselves, see themselves as having power and agency and tend to be more fulfilled in their relationships, careers, life-satisfaction and so forth.2

And no, this is not some mindless new-agey mantra to just “be positive.” Tell someone who has just lost a loved one that they should choose to “think happy thoughts,” and they will be right to punch you in the face. A self-care mantra worth remembering is: “It’s ok to not be ok.”

But whether we choose to let grief destroy us, or we choose to repress it with “happy thoughts,” or we choose to deal with it in a healthy way, we are still always making a choice about how we respond. If that wasn’t the case, then all well-being and self-care advice would be in vain.

By realising that we choose our response to the world, that we are not perpetual victims who control nothing any more than we are Gods who control everything, we can begin to own our suffering, to control our suffering. In so doing, we begin to own and control ourselves.

You may just find that in controlling yourself, you in fact control much more than you realise.

YOUR mind, YOUR CHARACTER AND YOUR PURPOSE

Different traditions have emphasised at least three different ways that you control yourself and your response to the world.

Buddhist mindfulness is based in cultivating control in terms of your state of mind, or how you think. To be clear, you cannot always control what thoughts come and go in the mind. The core of Buddhism is that pleasant and unpleasant thoughts and feelings will both inevitably come and go, and trying to either cling to or avoid them is precisely what causes us misery. However, when you ground your attention in the present moment, you are in a state where you can take control of your relationship to your own thoughts.

In mindfulness, an anxious thought may arise but that doesn’t mean you have to believe the thought, much less react emotionally to it. Instead of being battered about by whatever thoughts happen to burst forth like a fire hydrant in the mind, you can literally just observe them rise and pass away. This is self-control defined.

It’s also why mindfulness has been so effective as a method of pain-relief. It’s not that meditation reduces the primary physical pain itself, it’s that it reduces what psychologists call “secondary pain,” or our mental and emotional reaction to the primary pain. According to this research, much of the pain we feel when we experience physical injury is actually of this “secondary” type, not the actual pain itself.3 As it turns out, we’re all just over-reacting drama-queens, and mindfulness helps cut through that nonsense.

Greek and Roman Stoicism emphasises control in terms of cultivating who you are, your character as a human being. In fact, the Stoic “Dichotomy of Control” is one of the earliest and clearest expressions of the idea that while we don’t control the world, we do control ourselves. And as Epictetus said, “The good or ill of a person lies within their own will.”4

The Stoics point out that external goals like wealth, fame, the admiration of others, etc. are no good because they largely depend on factors outside our control. Whereas internal goals that make us a better, wiser, happier person are good because they lie within our control. This is the essence of the Stoic recommendation against idle hope, or wishful-thinking about things beyond our control. Instead of just hoping the world will stop being difficult and conform to your whims, focus on the kind of person you want to be.

Instead of just hoping for a promotion, which only your manager controls, focus on being good at your job, which you control. Instead of just hoping someone will love you, which only the object of your affection controls, focus on being a loveable person, which you control. Instead of just hoping the world will stop being sexist, racist, classist or ecocidal, which the entire rest of the world controls, be a voice for anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-classism and environmentalism, which you control.

Yet Frankl himself is usually associated with the not-so-ancient and very loose school known as Existentialism, which advocates control in terms of figuring out your purpose, or why you carry on. Their catch-cry is “existence precedes essence,”5 which basically just means that, rather than coming into existence as the result of some predetermined purpose (as set by God, Fate, Nature and so forth), we come into existence and then choose our purpose.

More simply put, the meaning of life – and therefore the meaning of all the crap that life throws at you – is what you make it. Jean-Paul Sartre – the poster-boy of Existentialism – even went so far as to argue that a person is free even when they’re in chains, since they have the freedom to choose the meaning of their condition.

Such thinking was certainly part of Frankl’s answer to the Nazi concentration camps: “People are ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as they can see a meaning in it.”6 In fact he went even further, posing that finding one’s meaning is the fundamental driving force for human beings; the “will to purpose” as opposed to Friedrich Nietzsche’s “will to power” or Sigmund Freud’s “will to pleasure.”

Sartre contended that the freedom to choose our own purpose can be exhilarating or anxiety-inducing (depending on how you look at it). When people feel the latter they tend to look to authority figures – parents, mentors, church, etc. – to simply tell them the meaning of their life; but this is what Sartre called “bad faith,” or pretending that such authority figures know something that they don’t.7

No, our purpose can never be based on being true to someone else’s expectations, only on being true to our own; this is what Sartre said it is to live “authentically.” If the Stoics emphasise being our best selves, being true to ourselves and our ideals, Existentialists add that doing so is the very thing that gives our lives meaning. Be true and you will feel purposeful; fail, and you won’t.

Don’t just fight fascists like the Nazis because you hope to win. Instead, fight fascists because it’s who you are, it’s what you believe in, and therefore it gives you purpose, your reason for being. Fight fascists because even the slave who is true to themselves lives a freer, more meaningful existence than the king who is not. Fight fascists because they’re fascists.

THE LAST OF THE HUMAN FREEDOMS

Whichever school of thought you align yourself with, there is truth in all of them: resilience comes down to the choices you make about how you think, who you are and why you carry on. The power to make these choices is something that no one – not even Nazis at the height of their power – can take away from you. It is in this sense that you are never powerless.

Frankl was by no means perfect.8 However, the main take-away from his story should be an invaluable lesson for us all. If Frankl could harness the power to choose his thoughts, to choose who he was, to choose the very meaning of his existence, even during one of the darkest episodes of all time and with such a horrific level of personal loss, I’m not sure what excuse the rest of us have.

I will leave you with one of the many gems from his book: “Everything can be taken from a person but one thing – the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Footnotes

  1. Frankl, V. (1947). Man’s Search for Meaning, Beacon Press.
  2. Psychology Today. (n.d.). Locus of Control. https://www.psychologytoday.com/nz/basics/locus-control
  3. Zeidan, F., and Vago, D. (2017, June 1). Mindfulness Meditation-Based Pain-Relief: A Mechanistic Account. PMC. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4941786/. This article also notes that the pain-relief efficacy of mindfulness was well-known in Buddhism: “The ancient Buddhist text, the Sullatta Sutta (The Arrow), states that meditation practitioners have the unique ability to fully experience the sensory aspect of pain (first arrow) but to “let go” of the evaluation (second arrow) of pain.”
  4. Epictetus. (n.d.). Discourses. In Robert Dobbin (Ed.) Epictetus: Discourses and Selected Writings. Penguin Classics. (2008).
  5. Sartre, J. P. (1946). Existentialism is a Humanism. Yale University Press.
  6. Frankl.
  7. Sartre, J. P. (1943). L’Être et le Néant. Editions Gallimard.
  8. Viktor Frankl has been criticised for one of his claims in his book, which was that a positive attitude was essential to surviving the camps. This can be criticised as implying that those who died simply weren’t thinking the right thoughts. As I’ve discussed before, this sort of thinking can lead to victim-blaming. Hey, we all have blindspots.

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