The Illusion of Control

Much of our unhappiness comes from the expectation that we can control our lives, and the frustration that results when reality teaches us differently.

Much of our unhappiness comes from the expectation that we can control our lives, and the frustration that results when reality teaches us differently. Having little say or recollection of the beginning of our lives, and confronted with the inevitability of its end, we try to at least direct what’s in between.

We attempt to control our environment – our homes, our neighborhoods, our world. But the house deteriorates without regular maintenance. Noisy neighbors move in next door or, perhaps, we are the noisy neighbors and the newcomers complain too much.

We try to control our possessions. But the things we own decay, become lost or obsolete, or they no longer give us the same satisfaction that they did when they were new. And it’s inconvenient to replace old things that have worn out or have been misplaced because it interrupts our quest for new things.

We strive to control events and circumstances – the moments of our days and the milestones of our lives. We expect to advance in our careers, or at least have job security, until the economy changes. We anticipate the perfect vacation, until our hotel reservation is lost. We anticipate an easy commute to work, but traffic builds up as the roads become congested with other people anticipating an easy commute to work.

Most frustrating of all, and not always consciously, we try to control other people. We expect our partners to behave in a certain way, most conveniently by reading our minds. We expect our children to follow a certain path. We don’t always receive the respect or recognition that we feel we deserve.

When things don’t happen as we wish, we become frustrated, perhaps depressed, sometimes angry. The stoic teacher Epictetus taught his students,

Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.

In other words, some things we can control and some things we cannot, and happiness comes from knowing the difference.

The first challenge is recognizing just how far our control extends, and realizing that there are many things that concern us that we cannot control. Our area of concern is almost always beyond the scope of our control. Many things in life concern us – global warming, nuclear war, the neighbor’s dog – but that doesn’t mean that we can control them. There are things that we can do to effect change, especially if we coordinate our efforts with others who share the same concern, but absolute control eludes our grasp.

We may be concerned that our children will live happy and fulfilling lives, but we can’t control every event and outcome for them, nor do they want us to. No matter how much we expand the scope of our control, our area of concern will always be greater.

This is the fallacy of power. Power and control are not synonymous. Those who acquire power believe that they can control events and people. And the constant quest for more power arises from misinterpreting unsuccessful attempts to control, and the mistaken belief that more power brings more control. Power does not give us control. Power enables us to influence people and events, but we cannot guarantee actions and outcomes.

The need for power and control arises from attachment. We become attached to things, to sequences of events, to having things our own way. Attachment promotes unhappiness and discontent by denying the reality of change. Change is inevitable. Change is necessary.

Without change we could not progress in life. In fact, the universe would not exist and we would never have been born. Recognizing the inevitability, the reality of change is the beginning of relinquishing attachments and dissolving the illusion of control.

This does not mean adopting an attitude of doom and gloom. Happiness does not come from fatalism. We can accept that “everything happens for a reason” while investigating those reasons so that we can effect positive change in our lives and in the lives of others.

Nor do we have to avoid enjoying things. The Zen master Suzuki Roshi taught, “Renunciation is not giving up the things of this world, but accepting that they go away.”

Happiness comes from accepting “what is.” Acceptance begins when we recognize that there is only one thing that we can truly control – our thoughts. The Buddha instructed his followers,

We are what we think.

All that we are arises with our thoughts.

With our thoughts we make the world.

Even our thoughts are difficult to control. Much of the time incessant mental chatter consumes us. And much of this babble is negative. In our minds, we misrepresent the past, magnify fears about the future, make critical assessments of others and demean ourselves.

It is not easy, but we can control our thoughts, although such control may not be absolute. Through persistence we can gradually clear our minds and begin living in the present. We learn to let go of regrets about the past and fears about the future. We cease unnecessary criticisms of others and ourselves. When we live in the present, we appreciate everything for the way it is – right now – with the implicit understanding that life, and every component of it, is fleeting.

By controlling our thoughts, we begin to see things “just as they are” and, as Epictetus promised his students, we begin to attain inner tranquility and outer effectiveness. By doing so, we realize the greatest benefit of change: growth.