In Control?


Some of the most out of control people are those who think they are in control of everything.

Let me suggest a little exercise, just for fun.

Take out a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle to make two columns. Label the left column “things I can control”, and label the right column “things I can’t control”. Now start making your lists, putting in the left column all the things you can think of that you can control, (that is to say, by direct effort you can determine the outcome with certainty), and things you can’t control in the right. Right away you may notice that you don’t have enough space to list all the thing you can’t control, so let’s limit that right column to things about 1) other people, 2) yourself, 3) your circumstances.

When I do this exercise, I realize that there are very few things in the left column (things I can control), and they are these:

My own thoughts (contemplating or focusing)
My own choices
My own actions

I find that the right column (things I can’t control) is quite large, and includes things like this:

Other people’s: Behavior, choices, thoughts, feelings, opinions, attitudes, etc.
My own: Personality, intellectual capacity, physical characteristics, emotional feelings, “reflexive” thoughts, health, mortality.
Circumstances such as: My place of birth, my race, my gender, who I’m related to, consequences of my parent’s choices, bad things happening, etc.

Now some will argue that I can control some of the above, such as my feelings and my health. But I would argue that while I can make healthy choices, or do things that are likely to make me happy, that doesn’t constitute control. While I may make choices that generally should have a predictable influence on my health or feelings, I don’t have direct control over them. For instance, I could live a very healthy lifestyle and still die young, and if I could choose my feelings I would never feel anything but happy.

There is of course a connection between the things I can control and the things I can’t. To be sure, my thoughts, choices, and actions (the left column) influence many of the things in the right column, but that is not the same as being in control of them.

Based on these assumptions, let me make three observations.
If I have a finite quantity of time and mental and emotional energy (call it fuel) with which to run my life, then whatever amount of that fuel I burn by concerning myself over things I can’t control is lost. That is to say, I can’t use it to run my own life. Wasted. Gone. So if 40% of my time and energy is going toward things I can’t control, I only have 60% to live off of. Not very efficient. This is called opportunity cost.
The “can control” items run in sequence. The ancestor of every action is a thought. I can’t do anything unless I first think it. This points to the significance of being mindful of my thinking. I should pay attention to what I am paying attention to, because those thoughts will become choices, which will become actions. Opportunity cost applies to thinking!
Although the “act of thinking” is (or can be) the starting point for our choices and actions, we all tend to make the same mistake. Instead of being intentional about directing our own thinking, we often allow what we feel to determine the the focus and quality of our thinking. That is to say if I wake in a bad mood, I am likely, (without realizing it), to let my bad mood become bad thinking which becomes bad choices and leads to bad actions. The alternative is to 1) be “in touch” with my own emotional self enough to know what I am feeling, 2) be able to accept the feeling (even if I don’t like it), 3) express it appropriately, and then 4) move on with intentionality about what I choose to “think on”.

In conclusion, most of us assume an ability to control many things that we do not, in fact, control. Trying to control these things creates worry, stress, and guilt, and it also prevents us from using our full energies to efficiently manage ourselves. Worse, we become toxic to those around us as we try to control them. If am am to live at peace with God, with others, and with myself, I must expose the lie of control in my own life, and in humility seek God, praying for His grace and the courage to trust in Him more than in myself.

There is someone in control of all things. I am not He.

Proposed action steps:

Mind your mind, pay attention to what you are paying attention to.
2) Practice acceptance of things that aren’t yours to control.
3) Take ownership of your own thoughts, choices, and actions. Don’t blame others.
4) Be emotionally honest, and cultivate relationships with safe people to share with.
5) Quit trying to fix others, and work on yourself instead.

Dear God,
Thank you for being the source for all things. Forgive me for my arrogance and pride in trying to control, and thereby asserting my will above yours. Please grant me grace to rest in you and your promise to love, care, and provide for me. Also I ask for the patience to wait for you, and forgiveness for others I feel have wronged me. Gratefully and in the name of Jesus I pray, amen.


Add grace and understanding to your day with words from Richard E. Simmons III in your inbox. Sign-up for weekly email with the latest blog post, podcast, and quote.

Fill out the form to receive wisdom in your inbox from Richard E. Simmons III.