Controlling Control

by DT Strain.


Many people have “control issues” but the “issue of control” runs a little deeper, and a little wider. The ancients realized the link between our approach to control and our happiness a long time ago…

Here in Houston I attended the small group called the Houston Stoicism Meetup, and the issue of control was discussed. In our society it’s common to be told things like, “well at least you have your health” and this is seen as wise counsel. We also think that people who are deeply attached to their friends and family are ‘well grounded’ and ‘down to earth’ – they “know what’s important in life”. We think this way because we are comparing them to people who are attached to the pursuit of money, fame, sex, drugs, and so on. Yet, many ancient philosophers (East and West) would say that all of these people are vicious (vice-fillled) and foolish. None of them are on the road to a contented, flourishing life of deep happiness because they all harbor unhealthy attachment.


These attachments spring from a failure to understand and appreciate what we control, and what we do not control.

In our individualistic society some often speak of responsibility. Responsibility is a good thing, but this can lead to delusions about how the world works. It’s easy to realize that we can’t control the weather, we can’t control acts of nature, and we can’t control what other people do. But we might often think we can control our careers, our health, or relationships, our wealth, and more. Responsibility-preachers will tell us these things are in our power and if we just ‘work harder’, ‘be more careful and thoughtful’, ‘plan ahead’, and apply ourselves responsibly we can have whatever we want. Those of the more mystical persuasion might even try to convince us that we can control our good fortune by ‘wishing really hard’.

Certainly our efforts can effect the chances of various outcomes, and we should apply them steadily. We are very fond of thinking we have “some control” over things. But the Stoics, at least, didn’t deal in “some control”. They said that you either control something, or you do not – period.

This position may seem a little odd to us. Perhaps we chalk it up to those primitives not having our sophisticated subtle look at things, but this would be a ludicrous mistake of ego and ignorance.


Why did they approach control in such an absolute way? Consider the following story…

Suppose you worked in an office and just received a promotion to “Head Administrator” (HA). You get a fancy corner office and many people report to you. “Now!” you think, “I am in control and things will finally be done right around here!” So after getting settled in you begin making some executive decisions and giving out directives, memos, and so on. Eventually you get a call from upstairs. You discover there is a person over you who is the “Chief Head Administrator” (CHA). Sensing your concern, he assures you that you are in control of your office – all he asks is that all directives be run across his desk first. Occasionally he may override your decisions if he sees a greater reason to. You might think you have “some control” over the office.

However, consider two columns – categories of situations. In the first column are situations where the HA and the CHA agree. In this column the HA always gets his way. Now consider the second column, where the HA and CHA disagree. In these situations the CHA gets his way and the HA does not. So, the CHA always gets his way, and the HA only gets his way, when it happens to agree with the CHA. The HA, then, is simply saving the CHA some work. Surely, if the HA were to leave, things would not work well, but you certainly cannot say the HA is in ‘control’ of anything. He is more like a decision-making proxy servant. This is how the Stoics viewed the notion of “some control” – as a farce.

(Incidentally, this is a similar notion to a description I once heard by a Promise Keeper regarding marriage. He said, “it is a partnership, but the man is the tie-breaker”. Of course, in a group of two, a ‘tie-breaker’ is a dictator.)

In life, we also have a Chief Head Administrator and that is the rest of reality outside our will. We have the universe to contend with, and we only get our way when it happens to coincide with its way. Sure, we make decisions and should be responsible for them, but we must always keep in mind that, ultimately, we really don’t control much of anything in terms of outcomes. The mightiest emperor that ever lived can rule armies across the globe, but see all his plans fall to nothing over a peanut that slips down the wrong opening in his throat. You can work out and diet your whole life only to have a random brain aneurysm and die instantly. You control nothing: not your wealth, your health, your friends, your possessions, your relationships, your reputation, nor your family.


So why do anything?

Well, there is one thing you control, and that is your will. That includes your dispositions and your choices. What many ancient philosophers said was that outcomes (our circumstances) will go up and down over the course of life. If we attach our contentment to outcomes and circumstance, we are in for a rocky ride. Rather, the only thing we should consider good in life is our virtuous choice, and the only thing we consider evil, our vicious choice – those are the things we can control and by attaching our contentment to our virtuous choices, only then will we be able to have a happy, contented life that is independent of, and transcends, our circumstances.

So, we do things in the world because they are the right thing to do, consistent with our nature as moral beings. If we pass by a swimming pool and see someone drowning, we help because it is our duty. But regardless of the outcome of our efforts, we can rest assured knowing that we made the best choice we could. After that choice leaves our brains, it is up to the rest of the universe to determine the outcome – the unfolding of all these interdependent events according to the laws of physics. The Buddhists speak of Pratityasamutpada or ‘dependent origination’ and the Stoics called that rational order of the universe the Logos. Christians much later incorporated a good deal of Stoic thought into their worldview, which no doubt inspired the notion of ‘leaving things in God’s hands’ despite retaining an attention to our own duties. As the Christian Serenity Prayer, even later, stated:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

May we all know the difference.