I often wish I could snap my fingers and make people do what I want. I wish I could speed up the pace at which I achieve my goals and slow down the pace at which pleasant things fade. I wish I could write blog posts and books that everyone loves, that I could have solitude and company whenever I want and not when they’re thrust upon me, and that when I’m in a bad mood I could simply decide not to be. What I wish for, in short, is absolute control over my life.
Of course, when I say “my life” what I really mean isn’t just that I want to have control over my own life but also over the lives of everyone who enters into my life. Not so much so I can determine the course of their lives but rather the course of my own. I wish, for example, I could control my son’s (thankfully rare) tantrums, or my wife’s (also thankfully rare) bad moods (I wish also I could control my impulse to fix them, and further, my irrational anger when I fail, as I almost always do). Control, research shows, is a basic desire we all share, but as a moment’s reflection reveals, one that none of us actually has.
At least in the sense of the kind of control we really want: an absolute ability to determine the exact results we want in all—or even any—circumstances. In fact, according to that definition, we mostly don’t even have control over ourselves. How often, for example, do we eat dessert when we try not to? Or procrastinate when we want to work? Or even feel something—anger, jealousy, guilt—when we’d rather feel the opposite?
What we have instead of control is the power to influence. Not the ability to move every variable in the exact direction we want, but the ability to move some of them. I can, for instance, write a thoughtful blog post that increases the likelihood that readers will like it. But I can’t control my readers’ moods, how their day goes before they read it, or their dispositions in general. What I can do is more easily influence people and events that are physically and personally close to me than those which are farther away. I can chant, meditate, or attend anger management classes to reduce the likelihood of my acting out of anger when control is denied me, but I can’t guarantee I won’t still feel it.
I draw this distinction not to split hairs but because I’ve found it personally useful to recognize that the complete control I often desire can never be mine. When I recall this truth, my frustration at not having it diminishes. Further, when I think about exerting influence over myself (the thing I want to control the most) rather than control—recognizing the greatest of my mass lies beneath the surface of conscious awareness—I paradoxically feel more in control. When I aim at influence rather than control, I often find many surprising ways to exert it, ways that paradoxically bring me closer to having control than if I’d aimed directly at it.
To seek influence is to succeed simply by speaking or even thinking. To seek control, on the other hand, is to continually feel anxious about failing at it.
In our search to gain more control over ourselves and our lives we frequently and foolishly seek to control other people. But to attempt to control others, while perhaps making life more convenient, is also to attempt to curtail their autonomy; and what genuine pleasure could we take from our interactions with others who live as nothing more than our pawns? The price of having satisfying relationships, then, lies in the fact that others will often not do as we want, frustrating us, yes, but also challenging us to become our better selves. And if we succeed in becoming those, we may, through the power of influence, help them to become theirs.
Next Week: What If Our Brains Aren’t Enough?