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  • Jan Flynn

How to Lose Control

And find happiness

I am a big fan of self-mastery: it’s the key to contentment and success in every dimension of life. As Paulo Coelho says in his novel Aleph:

If you conquer yourself, then you conquer the world.

Being in the driver’s seat of your own mind, having final say over your impulses and whims, and living your life in a way that is skillful rather than reactive is authentic control. Here’s another wink of wisdom, this time from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations:

You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

Way easier said than done, of course. From the moment we’re old enough to blame our broken toys on our pre-verbal younger siblings, we look for exits on the road to responsibility. It’s a human thing. Life would be ever so much simpler and more pleasant if the world, and especially the people in it, would conform to our needs and expectations.

This is why we get so tangled up in our notions of power and control. We keep falling into the error of thinking that if we can just exert enough control, enough influence over external conditions, including the behavior and opinions of other people, we can arrange our world so everything is okay. From our perspective, that is.

The problem is that everybody else is trying to do the exact same thing. After all, we’ve got pets to train and children to raise and maybe staff to manage, not to mention a life partner who would be absolutely perfect if they would stop leaving their damn dishes in the sink. No wonder we get kerfuffled about the difference between “power to” and “power over.”

One of my favorite one-panel cartoons from long ago — I only wish I could find it again so I could properly cite it and its author — shows a serious-looking, suit-clad man standing at the shoreline at sunset, his hands held out imperiously toward the surf. A little ways behind him are two people looking on. One of the observers is leaning to whisper an explanation into the other one’s ear: “He comes here every day to command the tide to go out.”

That kind of sums up the human confusion about control.

Losing control, in this context, isn’t a free ticket to indulging every impulse that crosses our mind, or throwing a tantrum when things don’t go our way (we’ve got the Current Occupant for that, after all). If we want to find contentment and joy in life, we have to say goodbye to our illusions about what we are truly in charge of.

It turns out to be a very short list: ourselves. That’s it.

At first, this is a dispiriting idea. First of all, self-mastery is hard, right? So is accepting the fact that we have very little ability to change most events, even less to change other people, and none at all when it comes to the weather (which is why we whine about it so much).

But when you think of the individuals who have engendered real and positive change, an expansion in the way we see ourselves and each other — great spiritual teachers like Jesus and the Buddha, or great leaders like Gandhi and Mandela — they weren’t about exerting authoritarian control, in the way our egos think of power. They led by example; they worked from the inside out.

Most of us are neither great spiritual masters nor world leaders (in my case, I’m deeply grateful for that fact). But we can still work from the inside out, and when we do get out heads around the fact that we can really only boss ourselves, it turns out there is a lot we can let go of. That turns out to be a big relief. Here are three things you can lose control over, starting now:

1. What other people think of you

There are a few people, a very few, in your life whose good opinion you should wish to cultivate: your spouse or partner (assuming you’ve found the one who is right for you), your children (assuming you’re not just trying to get them to like you, a common mistake), and maybe your boss (assuming . . . well, you get my drift). Other than that, it doesn’t matter.

Yes, you should treat people with consideration and in the way you would wish to be treated. There’s a reason why that’s the Golden Rule. But when it comes to what they think of your appearance, your profession, or your politics, it is truly none of your business.

Here’s a secret: other people spend very little time thinking about you at all. So it’s not worth your energy to worry about it. Be nice, and be free.

2. Other people’s behavior

Some people, right? The ones who drive like idiots, or vote for the horrible candidate, or don’t pick up their dog’s poop. What’s the matter with those people?

Maybe everything. Maybe nothing. Maybe they have to get to the hospital to say goodbye before it’s too late. Maybe they’re up against challenges that would drive you to your knees and they’re as frustrated and frightened about our state of affairs as you are. Maybe they ran out of poop bags.

Maybe it’s you, being all judgy like that. How about you just drop the grumpy opining for a day or two? Hint: it won’t make any difference to those people. But it will to you.

3. The future

That sounds silly, right? I mean, we all know we’re not in charge of the future.

But we fret about it as if we were, all the time. I sure do, anyway, and when I do, it’s an express ticket to unhappiness and anxiety. There is just so much to stress about: the climate, the next election, pandemics, the home repair project that is spiraling out of budget.

Tell me you do the same thing. Here’s where we’re going off the rails, my friend: we don’t know how things are going to turn out. Like, at all. Yikes.

Take a deep breath. It’s okay, I promise. I don’t promise that the future will be okay — I promise that the future won’t happen. It never does. Anything and everything can only happen in the present. By the time the future gets here, it will be the present, and we’ll deal with it, because we can pretty much always deal with the present, right? It’s worrying about the future (which, again, does not in fact exist) that makes us nuts.

Sure, set goals, make plans, vote (please!), plant seeds that can grow into your vision of your garden and your life. And then relax about it. Once you’ve done what you can, you’re not in charge of the results. Whatever those turn out to be, they won’t be permanent anyway.

Doesn’t that feel better? Here’s another fave quote of mine, from the luminous Audrey Hepburn (who was no slouch when it came to doing what she could to improve the world for others):

The most important thing is to enjoy your life — to be happy — it’s all that matters.

Loosen your grip a little bit. Enjoy your present.

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