Control Is an Illusion, Part 1: But We Still Have Choices


Sunset on Sydney Harbour

Sydney, Wednesday

Several events have happened in my life that have caused me to re-examine my beliefs about control, truth, and life in general. 

On the issue of control, I received an e-mail from a friend in New York whose husband took early retirement from a large financial institution last year.  As luck would have it, their two adult daughters also work for the same organisation.

For reasons that seemed good at the time, this family invested much of their future financial security in one of many companies that are now in dire straits as part of the global financial crisis.

All That Planning, Now This

Our friends are not greedy Wall Street gamblers, for whom I have no sympathy.  They’re a hardworking couple who spent years doing a grueling commute to the city, saving money for their children’s education, and looking forward to a reasonable retirement once the girls completed college.

My friend is now sick with worry and she’s angry, too.  She’s worried about a nest egg that’s shrunk to almost nothing, worried about her daughters’ job security, and worried about her and her husband’s future.  She’s angry at herself and her husband for not making different decisions in the past.

After all the years of planning and saving, my friend feels powerless.  She’s afraid of what might happen next, and what impact it will have on her family.

The Randomness of Tragedy

One side of me wants to tell my friend she worries too much, especially about things that are in the past and things she can’t control.  The other side of me understands something of what she feels.

Almost everyone on this earth has experienced loss, grief, and awareness that life can change in an instant.  Lives are lost by accident, illness, natural forces like earthquakes and tsunamis, and human actions of war and terrorism.

I don’t consider financial loss and trauma in the same category as loss of life.  But I do understand that in the current economic environment, monetary losses for some translate to loss of hope, loss of confidence, and loss of faith.  It’s causing pain to many people who did nothing to deserve it, and is another example of an event we can’t control.

Belief Systems under Threat

Tragedies rock belief systems such as:  drive safely and you won’t get killed in an automobile accident; live a healthy lifestyle and you won’t get cancer; take the underground to work and you won’t get killed in a terrorist attack. 

When tragedies happen, I have asked, like millions of others, why, why, why?  How can I understand this?  How can I ‘accept’ these events?   If it affects me directly, how can I survive in these circumstances?  What is the point?  And the worst question of all:  could I have done anything different to change the outcome?  Could I have controlled what happened?

At various times of my life, my deepest beliefs have been challenged:  do I believe in God, any God?  What is the purpose of life?  What is the meaning of these events?  Is there any meaning?   Am I supposed to be learning from this, and if so, could I please go back to my childhood grief-free existence?

My mother always said, “All people have suffering in their lives.”  As usual, she was right.    

Control Is an Illusion, but We Still Have Choices

For me the challenge is two-fold:

  1. How to accept the randomness of tragedy and come to grips with the idea that control is an illusion.
  2. How to live a life that integrates my belief that control is an illusion with my belief that we have free will and can and must make choices that are true to ourselves.

Three Books that Helped Me 

the-will-of-god5My brother was killed in an automobile accident and my husband died from cancer, so I have been the recipient of many ‘death platitudes’.  One of the worst is “It was God’s will”.  Not my God, and not Leslie D. Weatherhead’s God.

The Will of God is a series of five sermons this Methodist minister gave to his congregation in England during World War II.  I found it several years after my brother’s death, and it still helps me today.  I also liked Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People, but for me Weatherhead is more meaningful.

the-artists-way3Somewhere on the path of my questioning, I realised good things also happen when we step out in faith without trying to control the outcome.  For example, I thought my international assignment would be to Paris, but through a series of serendipitous events, Paris became Sydney.

From Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, which I referred to in “Writing? You Need a Job,” I learned the power and beauty of combining two approaches that don’t always go together for those of us with ‘control tendencies’:  taking action on our own behalf and not knowing exactly what will happen next.

Cameron’s book is focused inward, on discerning and then being true to one’s deepest self.


the-dance-of-anger2The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner is focused outward, on being true to one’s self in relationships with other people.  Like Cameron, she provides guidance on how to become clear about one’s deepest feelings and beliefs.  Then she shows how to take action in relationships with others that is congruent and true to those beliefs.

Lerner is brilliant at describing how we can’t control others, but we can make conscious choices that are in our own best interest.  We can’t control other people’s dance steps, but by changing our own, we can change the dance we’re doing with them.

Truth Can Be Tricky

I want to tell my friend in New York not to worry about things she can’t control, that it’s a waste of time to beat herself up for decisions made ten years ago, that she will be OK.  She can still make choices, and pursue her dreams.  But that would put me in the dreaded ranks of platitude-pushers.

My friend has to be true to herself as she and her husband figure out what, if any, actions they’ll take in the current financial crisis. 

Thinking about control, or lack of it, and making choices that are ‘true to one’s self’ raises some interesting questions for me about truth.

More to come.

7 Responses

  1. I am so very sorry to hear about your friend and their financial hit. Horrible.

    I never was one much for God. That said, I did believe in order, meaning, and some sort of benevolent plan. I have lost that belief because of the traumas I have endured. Now I believe in chaos and that we have agency up to a certain point, that point intersects with chaos and randomness. I do think it is possible to make meaning out of tradgedy but I don’t believe any meaning is intended.

  2. I also feel bad for your friends. These are hard times for many people around the world.

    I feel that there are so many things in life that are beyond our touch.And everyone acts on this with their own philosphy/spirituality.I’m not going to get into that.

    Yes; we have the choice also to advance in time, and look at Life again with other eyes. Because Life is also good .

  3. It is scary right now financially almost everywhere in the world. I try not to watch the news too much so I’m not always focused on it. We live a simple life and right now are not dependent on any stock income for which I feel very lucky. And suffering-sure is a part of life. No way to escape it so I try to live each moment to the fullest.

  4. Thank you, Belette, Barbara, and Linda.

    Such wonderful thoughts – I agree so much re life being good, making meaning out of tragedy, and trying to live each moment to the fullest.

    Also thank you for your empathy for my friends and everyone having a difficult financial time.

  5. Hi Carolyn,

    Wow.. I’m very sorry to hear about your husband and your brother. So tragic.
    After losing my mom three years ago to cancer- my world change, my life changed, my way of thinking and my personality changed… too…
    I have a very strong belief in God, but my is more spiritual than dogma. I don’t believe that it’s God’s will to take the people we love from us… I think it’s just the way that life is, unfair, and as it is… LIFE… I would like to read this book because after 3 years, I am still troubled by mom’s mom’s early departure and the empty feeling of not having her hear anymore… Because I lost my mom, it made me change my thinking a lot about material things in life… I try to live for the day.. in the moment.. and not in the past or the future… as the past is gone- yes- I cherish the memories, of course! And the future is unkown… We can prepare for it, yet we NEVER know what will happen… So, I like to live in the present, the now…. and try to live as I can, to be as happy as I can be.
    Thanks for sharing this post with us… It really puts things into perspective. I am sorry about your friends and all of my friends who are struggling right now during this crisis… Do you know that the state of California is pretty much bankrupt… I wonder what Arnold will do… what the U.S. gov’t will do to help out the sunshine state!


  6. Hi Carol,

    If you haven’t read it already, I think Robyn Davidson’s book Tracks is an excellent read. During her trek across the Australian desert with her 4 camels and one dog, she ponders a great deal about life, truth, and control. She frets a good deal about control as she feels that she makes changes in her trip plan to accommodate her sponsor as well as the wishes of family and friends.

    On the one hand a reader is likely to think that this woman is crazy, but on the other hand, she often makes thoughtful comments about situations we all face, although not necessarily in the face of brutal heat, nasty insects, lots of dust, and poisonous snakes! She poses questions that makes a reader stop and think even though that same reader is eager to turn the page and find out what happens next. It is a fine example of memoir, although not necessarily a typical one, but then whose life is typical?

  7. Leesa, very eloquent response – thank you so much. Although I haven’t lost my mother (and I’m so sorry you lost yours), I relate to and agree with everything you said. I too have a strong personal faith and I think you would really like Leslie Weatherhead’s book. You’re a great role model with your positive attitude!

    Eleanor, thank you too and yes, I’ve read “Tracks” — my late husband Gary and I both had a copy when we met in 1981, and discovered we both dreamed of visiting Australia! I’ve re-read it a few times, and understand it’s now become somewhat of a cult classic. Davidson was way ahead of the times in writing this before the flood of memoirs that came later. I might read it again based on your comment – thank you.

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