I’d like to introduce my newest mantra: “This is not under my control.”
As most of you who know me personally, control is a theme of my life. It’s ok, Mom, you can snort and laugh at the understatement there. As a high achieving, mostly type A, big sister personality, having and maintaining control over my life, my surroundings, and to be honest, the lives of those in close relationship with me, has (occasionally) been an obsession of mine.
It can cause endless stress spirals. My subconscious interprets this stress while I’m sleeping, and sends versions of my recurring ‘highway dream’. Typically, the car is speeding around bends and hills on the elevated highway, narrowly avoiding obstacles or just driving straight over them, and I’m not the one behind the wheel. I’m in the backseat trying to reach the steering wheel and the pedals, or someone entirely different is driving and won’t listen to me. The car just keeps going and I have no input! No control! These dreams are painfully obvious once I’ve woken up, but they can terrify me in my sleep. Night before last, a person who was a hybrid of my two best friends drove the car straight over a bike and furniture in the road, right past a woman wandering in the lanes, and into a fire fight between cops and bad guys! Meanwhile I was in the back seat, alternately freaking out about the highway and arguing with a sister on one side of me, and then, a friend on the other side of me got shot in the leg. We just kept going despite my protestations. The friend was ok, but the car wouldn’t stop. Because Life doesn’t stop, because control is a mirage. The only truth is change, and that car will keep on driving.
I recently read a great metaphor for control, life and understanding change. It advises that we think of life as a train journey. During the good times of our life we’re riding through beautiful landscapes: green hills, fragrant groves, and awesome canyons; while the tough times are the blight areas: the forgotten, dirty, semi-industrial zones surrounding airports etc. Conflict and pain can happen in both spaces when we try to control it. We can’t lean out of the train car window, grab hold of a tree branch in the beautiful areas, hang on for dear life and expect to stop the train, and we certainly can’t get behind the engine and push when we’re going through the blight zones. Both will hurt us. Life will do what it’s going to do, and the train will keep going at its own pace. We can, of course, affect the destination and buy a different ticket, and we can always invite other people onto the train or off it. Privilege will also change the trains: their directions and course. But we can’t take control of them. We are passengers along for the ride.
Because the problem with control is that if you’re in charge of things, then it’s your fault when they go poorly. You’ll be like the Hippos in Hungry Hungry, trying to gobble up and keep track of all your marbles, multi-tasking and committing your life away. Releasing the responsibility for other people’s actions and major life events is freeing me.
I can’t control most things. In fact, to take a page from the Stoic’s book, the only thing I can control is my reaction to life’s events. Each time I feel my stress, or irritation rise up, I can think of the train, and say to myself “This is not under my control.” The returns I’ve gotten have been amazing. It’s surprising that it’s taken me this long to realize, but I’m glad I’m figuring it out now. Please feel free to apply this to your own life and stressful situations, and let me know how it goes.