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If Something’s out of Your Control, Should You Still Worry About It?

There’s a freedom that comes with realising you have more influence over your life than you thought.

The Guardian

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‘You can’t stop the worldwide spread of a disease, but you can do plenty to stop it spreading through you.’ Photo from Tomekbudujedomek / Getty Images.

Recently – oh, no particular reason – I’ve found myself returning to the ancient philosophical idea known as “the dichotomy of control”. “Some things are within our power, while others are not,” wrote Epictetus, the Greek Stoic, in a line you’d be justified in dismissing as obvious, if it weren’t for the fact that we ignore its ramifications every day, and suffer as a result. In every situation, there are things we can control and things we can’t, and struggling to control the latter is a recipe for anxiety and stress. “Partial control”, like the kind I have over my three-year-old’s behaviour, can be broken down into the two: I usually have total control over what I say or do; and none, technically, over how he reacts.

It’s an idea that’s echoed widely elsewhere, for example in the Serenity Prayer, associated with Alcoholics Anonymous, and in an observation with Buddhist origins: if a problem can be fixed, there’s no need to worry about it; and if it can’t be fixed, well, why bother worrying?

Which is fine so far as it goes: it’s surely true that if I could manage never to fret about things I can’t affect, then life would proceed serenely. But it strikes me as a major weakness of Stoicism – at least in its rediscovered, newly fashionable form – to assume that seeing the truth in an insight like this can bring peace of mind by itself. Among the many things I can’t control, it turns out, are my own emotions. What Sigmund Freud and his successors brought to psychology was the understanding that conscious thought might be only a tiny sliver of what’s going on in the mind as a whole. So if a global pandemic triggers my particular anxieties around death, or illness, or job security – anxieties formed over decades, and embedded in my unconscious – it’s radically insufficient to try to think myself into realising they’re futile. If pointlessness caused things to vanish, PopSockets that people stick on the backs of their phones wouldn’t exist. Yet they do.

That’s why, in my experience, the dichotomy of control is best approached as a preliminary tool. You use it to distinguish what you can control from what you can’t – but peace of mind arrives only when you begin taking action in the realm of the former. (As the saying goes, you can’t think yourself into new ways of acting, but you can act yourself into new ways of thinking.)

It’s often less a matter of realising how little control you have than how much. You can’t stop the worldwide spread of a disease, but you can do plenty to stop it spreading through you. You can’t choose physical fitness, but you can choose to eat well, and to move. You can’t choose to make it through today’s to-do list, but you can choose to spend the next three hours diligently attacking it. And so on.

There’s a deep kind of freedom to be found here, even in the presence of severe external constraints. Your goals shift from external ones, about imposing certain changes on the world, to internal ones, about how you plan to act upon the world. These are objectives you can aim at wholeheartedly, fully expecting to accomplish – secure in the knowledge that they don’t require the cooperation of forces whose assistance you’re in no position to compel.

Read This

Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez offer ancient insights for thriving in a world you can’t control in their book, Live Like a Stoic.

Oliver Burkeman is a Guardian writer based in New York. Read his column here. He is the author of “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking”

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This post originally appeared on The Guardian and was published April 10, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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