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Trying to Control the Uncontrollable Will Drive You Crazy

How to make peace with the world

Life is full of little things that don't go our way. You get the seat on the airplane with the broken screen. The house next door becomes an Airbnb with bachelorette parties every weekend. Your delivery order is missing the side of guacamole you paid $6 for. Or my personal favorite — the shouting cell phone calls at the top of a mountain hike to tell everyone about the amazing views they cannot see.

Jean Paul Sartre captured how life can often feel when he famously wrote, "Hell is other people." Since time immemorial, humans have been annoying the crap out of each other. Whether deliberate or accidental, all but the most saintly among us can remember a time when we lost our cool and blew our scene. For lots of people, that can be almost everyday.

In a world that is constantly throwing us curveballs, why do we get so triggered? Why do we allow the ups and downs of what’s outside of us to rule what is happening inside of us? Is there a way to tame our inner Incredible Hulk and move through our lives more calmly and peacefully?

Rockin' in the free world

Philosophers throughout the ages have tried to enlighten us to a simple fact of human existence — shit happens.

We seem to forget that we live in a world inhabited by billions of people living lives that they view as just as important as we see our own. Everyday, each of us exercises our individual autonomy, making decisions on where we want to go, how we want to spend our time, and who we want to be. We love that we have that freedom, yet often get angry or annoyed when others make use of that same freedom for themselves.

The inescapable truth is that none of us can control the outside world, including other people. Short of hiding yourself away and providing for all of your needs and wants, life involves interdependence and interaction that cannot be perfectly scripted or predicted. We may sometimes have the illusion that we can buy or bully our way to greater control, but at some point, the real world will intervene.

Here’s an example. I used to hate waiting in line, especially when I was traveling every week for work. I tried to exert greater control over how long it took to get through security, buying Clear and TSA Pre-Check and analyzing each line before picking one.

Sometimes my strategy worked, but many times it didn’t. It seemed the more impatient I was, the longer it took, with my impatience acting like a magnet for a random search, personnel change, or something else that thwarted my attempts to make the world move faster just for me. Despite my best efforts, the chaos of the airport refused to fall under my control.

You can't make a blue sky green

It is easy to let our emotions get the better of us when things don’t go our way. We have lots of practice throwing tantrums. But how does adding anger or upset to a situation fix it or make it better? Might it not be better to approach the situation more rationally and from a higher perspective?

While I personally believe the rational mind is overemphasized in much of western philosophy, the Stoics make a very valid point. Given that the external world is beyond our control, trying to control it makes no sense. To do so would violate the very nature of what it means to be uncontrollable. It simply won't work.

Moreover, getting angry or upset at something we can't control is not just irrational but counter-productive because it puts you at the mercy of your emotions. Letting your emotions, particularly passionate emotions like anger and fear, dictate your life is not compatible with lasting peace and happiness.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca puts it this way: “Do not be irritated by vulgar trivialities…lukewarm water to drink, the couch is a mess, or the table carelessly laid — to be provoked by such things is lunacy.” The idea is that the proper reaction to things outside of our control is not an emotional impulse but a rational response. The rational person accepts that shit happens and does not give up her peace over the inescapable frustrations in life, many of which have no material impact on our lives.

Also, when we try to control everything in our lives we are basically demanding that everyone and everything conform to our expectations and arrange themselves for our convenience and pleasure. But that just sets us up for constant disappointment. No one has an obligation to be who or what we want, just like we don't owe it to anyone else to be a certain way.

Once we get it through our heads that trying to control the uncontrollable is a waste of time and energy, we can start to let things happen without it mattering so much to us and without feeling like it is being done to us. We can make the choice to preserve our state of being instead of letting our emotional states be bandied about by the whims of a world just doing its thing.

You have the power to choose peace

While we can’t control the outside world, the good news is that we can control how we experience it. In fact, our own thoughts, feelings, and actions are the only thing in life we can control, which means our happiness and wellbeing are solely up to us. That is a good thing! No one can control your mind without your consent. No one can tell you how to feel. No one can ruin your day unless you let them.

Protecting our peace requires making different choices and seeing things differently, which is where our rational mind can help us, if we commit to being objective. Part of this is putting our ego aside and allowing people their mistakes. Sometimes we just mess up. We don’t see the person merging from the other lane, we grab the cashew milk instead of almond milk, we accidentally delete our co-worker’s file. We all have bad days.

Even in cases where it is hard to assume positive intent, like when someone starts yelling at you and insulting you, who really cares? If this person so disagrees with you and is so rude about it, do you really care what he thinks and are you really likely to change his mind? Is it worth getting stressed and angry about?

As another Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, offered, “Say to yourself in the morning: I shall meet people who are interfering, ungracious, insolent, full of guile, deceitful and antisocial.” Basically, just know that there will be rude and unhelpful people in your day. It shouldn’t be a surprise that there are people in the world who are asleep to what considerate and kind behavior is.

Modern psychology has taught us that when people act poorly, many times it is driven by hurt, fear, and insecurity, not a deliberate intent to harm us. Thus, instead of reacting to another person’s hurt and fear with anger or condemnation, we can extend compassion and model better behavior or simply walk away. We can make our peace of mind more important than our pride.

Serenity now

Once we start abandoning the need to control the uncontrollable and focus on cultivating our own peaceful state of being, life gets less annoying. Your mind learns a new orientation that may still notice things that bother you, but it doesn’t attach to them and let them hijack how you feel. You realize that the harder you push against something, like waiting in line, the more likely it is to backfire. At the same time, you discover that the more grace you offer to the world, the more you get back.

Sometimes this is reality and sometimes it is just perception, but the distinction doesn’t really matter. In my case, once I finally accepted that lines are a part of life and reframed my time in line as an opportunity to take some deep breaths, chat with someone behind me, or daydream, waiting in line stopped bothering me, which meant I wasn’t getting frustrated or upset.

Nothing had changed except my mindset and my commitment to my happiness. It took practice (lots!), but it is a self-reinforcing cycle. Letting go of trying to control my environment and waging an unwinnable war has led to greater peace and a healthier attitude toward life and my fellow humans. Instead of expecting everyone to fall in line and getting pissed when they don’t, I allow others the same flexibility that I regularly enjoy. Like Sartre also said, "Freedom is what we do with what is done to us."


Want to learn tips, tools, and teachings to cultivate inner peace? Check out Resilience Rising mini-course.

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