Musings on Control

What does it mean to be in control of our lives? Is it at all possible, or desirable? Is it a better idea to try and let go of our need to control, or to find a way to exert influence at least over the meaning of our lives when bad times hit?

When do we feel in control of our lives? Do we want and need to be? It is one of those moments in my life when various storylines around and within me seem to cohere into one point. I find myself wondering about those transitional moments in individual lives — like a pregnancy, or a terminal illness — when we start to lose control of “our lives”.

It also seems to me that we are at a certain tipping point as humans, when we may be about to lose control of the ecosystem of which we are an integral part. Maybe we are all feeling the stress on some level of asking ourselves if we are in control, to what extent we can be, how we can be responsible for our small individual actions and how to keep believing that they have direct influence on what happens, while huge and irreversible changes take over around us and within.

“In control of my life” — what exactly does that mean? It brings to mind the image of someone sitting in a comfortable vehicle, with the steering wheel in a firm grip. A loss of control is a sudden swerving off the road. But is it really like this? Is it not an illusion that we are really in the drivers’ seat, an illusion fed by favourable circumstances, the health that allows us to drive at all, the personal affluence that allows us to buy a good car and hire experts to fix it, the affluence of the country we live in which has roads? What are “our lives” anyway? Maybe it is just the meeting point of all the decisions we make and all the ones which are made for us, starting with where and into what circumstances we are born.

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Maybe it is true that we always have some degree of control — here Jean-Dominique Bauby comes to mind, writing The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly with his left eyelid. Our locus of control is shifting all the time; remaining in control may be a question of shifting just in time. For example, when no longer able to do some task for yourself due to ill health, you can remain in control of who you organise to do it for you. If you don’t spot the moment, preferring to cling to the illusion of being able to do the task, you may end up with the whole matter being taken out of your hands. It is also a question of constantly redefining what is important to us, and what exactly we wish to be in control of, and finding new ways of getting those needs met as our circumstances change.

When loss of control hits us hard, Buddhists have a head start: life is understood to be suffering (sickness, old age and death) from the outset. It is harder then to define loss of “control” as a personal failure. The ultimate personal failure is loss of your “self”, which is also something Buddhists have come to terms with at the very start. If that carefully built up sense of ourselves as a consistent “thing” is only an illusion, there is so much less to worry about. It does seem however, that for those who do not do the work, do the practice of meditation which shows us in a practical way what there is aside from our illusions, it is easier to philosophically appreciate that loss, change, and transformation are our natural states of being when we are in sound health and comfortable.

I’m not sure where I am going with these musings. I feel an itching to bring them, in fact, back under control and find a conclusion. But I don’t think there is one. While being out of control can be an exhilarating state, which explains all kinds of risk taking, from various uses of drugs and sex to extreme sports, it is interesting to note that often such attempts to escape control end up controlling you.

When life comes along with its own constraints, we have to modify our ideas of control and then in the midst of this usually painful process, we can sometimes come up with the smallest little moments in which we can either let go of the tense, futile efforts to stay masters of our own destinies, or we can exert influence on our own lives and moods in small secret ways.

As Victor Frankl, the psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor, wrote:

If a prisoner felt that he could no longer endure the realities of camp life, he found a way out in his mental life — an invaluable opportunity to dwell in the spiritual domain, the one that the SS were unable to destroy. Spiritual life strengthened the prisoner, helped him adapt, and thereby improved his chances of survival.

Funnily enough, these two opposite strategies — letting go of attempts to control, and finding our own creative, often spiritual ways of carving out a sense of control over, if nothing else, our reactions, the meaning of our situation — seem to amount to much the same thing. A sense of being present, and of being able, in some terms or other, maybe even despite our own deaths, to survive.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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