The Illusion of Control

Control

I was watching something on television the other day. I don’t remember the name of the program, which tells you how memorable it was, but there was one segment that briefly caught my attention. Its premise concerned what we can do to exert more control in our lives, which implied that people have more control over their lives than they think.

What a crock of shit!

Seriously, what can we control? I mean, really control, as in wanting things to fall a certain way and being able to engineer the outcome we want, whenever we want.

We can’t control how other people act, what they do, or what they think of us. We can’t control events that impact our lives. We can’t control our health (I’ll explain later).  Many people have careers that choose them rather than the other way around.

I’m sure I could add to this list if I spent more time thinking about it, but my belief is the theory that we are masters of our destiny is an illusion. As I read these words I find myself asking “when have you become so cynical? That isn’t you.” My response is that I’m not being cynical, just realistic.

First of all, don’t confuse control with influence. We can certainly influence, or try to influence, all of the previously mentioned items, and sometimes we get lucky. But to consistently exert influence on events to such an extent that they turn out the way we desire? I think not.

The only thing we control in our jobs is whether to accept a job offer, and when it is time to quit and move on. We can certainly try to make ourselves indispensable by excelling at things like showing up on time, getting along with your peers, and the quality of our output.  But we can’t control layoffs, our customers, or the economy that influences many corporate decisions. We also can’t control the decisions made by the folks higher in the corporate food chain that make our work lives easier or harder.

Controlling people? Good luck with that! Hell, we can’t even control our kids. Maybe when they are younger and worship (or fear) us, but they eventually stand their ground, tune us out, and want to make decisions on their own, regardless of whether we think they are good/smart or bad/dumb. They blaze their own path, and if we are lucky, they will seek our counsel and actually consider what we have to say.

You can’t control what people think about you, or whether they like you. I’ve met people that I didn’t care for, and it wasn’t because of something they did or how they treated me. We simply didn’t mesh, through no fault of theirs. And even though I consider myself an extremely likable guy, it would be na├»ve to think everyone I come into contact with feels the same.

And bosses? Well, I had one boss in particular that treated me like shit for reasons unknown, and it didn’t matter how well or poorly I performed or what my immediate supervisor thought. He just took a dislike to me, and took pleasure in putting me under his thumb and tightening the screws whenever he could. I couldn’t get out of that place fast enough, but it took three years of hell before that happened. I’m sure everyone has a story or two like that.

Our health? Well, we can control what we put into our bodies, and how much sleep and exercise we get. That might give us better odds at staying healthy, but that’s about it. Look at me, for example. I’ve eaten well, never abused my body or had any addictions, have been in good shape and exercised regularly for a good part of my life. So why did I get MS, especially when there isn’t any family history?

To further illustrate, I’ve known people who didn’t smoke or drink and did all the right things, but still developed cancer or heart disease. Conversely I’ve known people who smoked like a chimney and lived to a ripe old age.

And as far as controlling the progression of my MS is concerned? Well, I’m taking all the recommended meds, vitamins and all the prescribed treatments, but is any of that really making a difference? K believes it has helped confine the progression and slow its pace, and maybe she’s correct. But the fact is that in ten short years I’ve gone from an active, able bodied guy to someone who has a hard time walking or staying upright. What are the next ten years going to look like? Is any of that going to prevent a date with the wheelchair at some point in time? I think not.

We certainly can’t control our elected representatives. The illusion of control through the ballot box exists, but in most cases the incumbent, supported by their lobbyists and sycophants, prevail. In my mind, these aren’t elections. They’re auctions.

What we do have control over is very simple. How we treat friends, family and people in general is at the top of a short list. So is deciding if we conduct our lives with honesty and integrity. We control whether we treat everyone in our orbit with kindness, empathy and genuineness. We control whether the decisions we make are based on what we believe is right, or if we take the easy, expedient path. We control whether we approach life with a glass half-full or half-empty point of view.

We all have regrets in life, but if we are true to ourselves, judgement and remorse won’t accompany them. Ultimately, the one thing we control from our attitudes and actions is how we feel about ourselves, the lives we have lived, and the people we have touched.

And isn’t that what really matters?