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What I Can Control

It's been hard to read any new headline recently without feeling terrible. From fires near Lake Tahoe, to Hurricane Ida, to the rising Covid numbers, to the horrific scene in Afghanistan, to the latest mess in Texas, I’m left with an ache in my gut and a feeling of powerlessness. Some part of me keeps feeling like there ought to be something I can do. And there are small ways I can soften things a tiny bit. I reach out to friends affected, I donate money, I am diligent about wearing a mask. But my impact is small.

At this end of my life, I am acutely aware of how little power I have over anything. This is not news to anyone who has even a modicum of consciousness, but it isn’t really how we live our lives. I have spent a huge portion of my adult years trying in one way or another to control something—anything. Whether it’s in my family, with my friends, or at work, I’m often the first to start making suggestions or giving advice. Sometimes those things help, but not in the bigger picture. What I’m very slowly discovering is that it’s okay to not be able to fix the problems of the world, or even the problems of the people in my life whom I love dearly and deeply. In fact, I’m thinking that isn’t really my job. This could be the hardest lesson I’ve ever had to learn.

It never occurred to me that trying to control what other people do is a little like diving head first into quicksand to rescue someone.

I was kind of surprised last spring when my therapist referenced the Serenity Prayer and suggested I think of it when someone in my life is struggling and I'm grappling to fix it. “Is there anything you can do to change what’s happening?” she asked. In most of the scenarios I was thinking about, there really wasn’t, but having to admit that left me feeling like my dog Remy must feel when I hold his leash and don’t let him chase the evil squirrels in front of our house. It was around this time I realized that the answer had more to do with what I could control or manage inside myself.

Admittedly, I came from a family where there was always some kind of emotional crisis, and my mother often turned to me to help her feel better about what was going on. This provided some very early training in becoming a fixer. Weirdly—maybe because I was so young—it actually made me think I could improve a situation. But then, whomever was misbehaving or melting down would do it again or fall apart in a new way and we would start all over again. It never occurred to me then that trying to control what other people do is a little like diving head first into quicksand to rescue someone. I had just been happy because during those short periods when things seemed better, I got to pat myself on the back and enjoy what felt like success.

So, when my therapist mentioned the Serenity Prayer, I started thinking about this recurring theme from the Calm app meditation leader I listen to. He talks regularly about what he calls equanimity—“the capacity to let your experience be what it is, without trying to fight it and negotiate with it.” His point is that living with equanimity is a much more peaceful way to live. In other words, my brain won’t always be assessing the world around me, looking for trouble and devising ways to fix it. In place of all of that stewing and fussing, I can feel the anxiety and live through it. It's not at all easy, but even when I start perseverating over someone's problems practically before they've occurred, I'm practicing stopping myself and breathing and remembering what's right in front of me.

Slowly, I’m getting better at it. I’m trying to just sit with myself, maybe think about why this chaos makes me so nervous, and do what I can do to bring a bit of peace to myself and other people. Listening is one of the most powerful tools I can offer. Just listening to how the struggling person feels. Not surprisingly, I actually hear more when I’m not trying to devise a solution. I also realize that I was duped early on into thinking that a good life was one without struggles. When I can just let them exist, the calamities aren’t as shocking or as overwhelming as I feared they would be. It’s all part of being alive, I think, and I can’t help but be amazed at how these lessons just keep on coming.


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