You Are Not Powerless: Focus on What You Do Control

achievement confident free freedom

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 there was hope beyond the senseless waste of life that surrounded him on every front. He chose to believe that this life had meaning, that he still had a “why” for existing, for carrying on in the world. Instead of uselessly ruminating on the tragedy all around him he chose to contemplate his beloved and his love for her.

Frankl survived the camps and went on to describe his experiences in his memoir “Man’s Search for Meaning” (1947) which has been described as one of the most influential psychology books of all time.1

what you CONTROL

Previously I wrote about the importance of acknowledging that you can’t control everything. 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 circumstance, there is always one thing you control 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 them with “happy thoughts,” or we choose to deal with our emotions 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. When you ground your attention in the present moment and gain some distance from your thoughts, observing them without attachment, you are in a state where you can literally choose which thoughts you are going to indulge in. You are not simply battered about by whatever thoughts happen to burst forth like a fire hydrant in the mind.

This is 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 developing 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. Epictetus said, “It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.”4 But how do we make the “correct” judgements? We must improve ourselves.

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 develop our character, i.e. “virtues” like wisdom and compassion, are good because they lie within our control. So instead of indulging in pointless wishful-thinking that the world will stop being difficult and conform to your whims, just focus on the kind of person you want to be.

Instead of hoping for a promotion, which only your manager controls, just focus on being good at your job, which you control. Instead of hoping someone will love you, which only the object of your affection controls, just focus on being a loveable person, which you control. Instead of hoping the world will stop being sexist, racist, classist or ecocidal, which the entire rest of the world controls, just 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: “Man is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as he 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 Neitzsche’s “will to power” or Sigmund Freud’s “will to pleasure.”

The Existentialists won’t tell you what the meaning of your life is. In fact, looking to anyone but yourself to tell you the meaning of your life will get you accused of “bad faith,”7 of pretending that others know something that they don’t. Although I’m sure there’s a cult leader or two out there who would be more than happy to tell you the meaning of your life, I would hope you decline the offer of their advice.

No, freedom entails responsibility, and so I’m sorry but this one is on you. If it helps, Albert Camus famously said that your purpose is just whatever keeps you from committing suicide.8

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.9 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 response to his external environment, choose who he was and the meaning of what happened to him, 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.”

You Are Not All-Powerful: Let Go of What You Can’t Control

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 Sam, 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.

TOXIC POSITIVITY GONE MAD

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; and whether it’s society doing it or the individual doing it to themselves, the results can be toxic, even abusive.

Essentially, 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 she is just being consistent with what she believes.

Byrne had to say it; and that’s the problem. The fact that such beliefs force you to talk this way about helpless 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.

Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism have always been pretty adamant that accepting that we can’t control everything is the key to both happiness and wisdom. As the Dalai Lama has said: “If a problem is fixable… then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying.”3

This is certainly an attitude cultivated in 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 called this same concept “The Dichotomy of Control.” They believed that dividing the world into things we can and can’t control is the first and most important thing we should all do, from a well-being point of view. Stoic philosopher Epictetus said: “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”4 Coming from a former slave, that’s a significant thing to say.

But following Epictetus’ advice gives us much needed perspective on almost everything else that is worth thinking about. We get on with the productive task of figuring out what we can in fact do, instead of wasting time pouring energy into worry about things beyond our control.

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.”5 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.

GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK

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.