February 12

The Fewer Things You Need to Control, the More You Can Control

February 12, 2018

Personal Growth

All day, every day, I listen to people tell me of their pain, fears, struggles, misery, and even their joy. From uncounted examples, I have identified a few patterns that are reliable and from which we can learn how to be happy.

One of these patterns—a remarkably consistent one—is that our happiness is intimately connected to our need to control things.

I once attended a Thanksgiving dinner being prepared by the mother of the family. She barked orders at everybody about everything: carry this; center that; move that; go get that; stop that; no, don’t do it that way; and more. I knew her pretty well, so I stood beside her for a moment—risking a quick turn on her part with a hot dish of marshmallow sweet potatoes, which would have hurt—and touched her arm gently. She looked up at me with irritation, and I asked, “You’re bossing a lot of people around.”

Her face immediately reflected the anger she felt, but before she could defend herself or turn into a volcano, I gently said, “How many different things do you have to control right now?”

Obviously puzzled at my stupidity, she said, “EVERYTHING!! Every single thing!”

I took her by both arms and said, “Put the sweet potatoes down.” I think I was mainly concerned that a dish of hot sweet potatoes would be pushed into my face. “Honey, is anybody doing exactly what you’re telling them to do?”

“No, I’m having to repeat everything. I could just scream.”

“I’d like to try an experiment. You tell me—only me—what needs to be done—not in detail, just generally—and we’ll see how it turns out.” She did what I suggested, and everything got done, without a single bark or expression of disappointment.

It turns out that everybody helped, a real sense of cooperation and cheerfulness developed, and everything tasted great. Later, I said to her, “What did you learn?”

“I don’t have to control everything.”

“No, you really don’t. In fact, it’s a law: The more controlling you do, the more disappointment and unhappiness you create—with yourself and everybody else. The less you control, the happier you are, and things tend to get done just fine.” You could even say that the fewer things you control, the more things you actually do control. You can’t control people and circumstances very well anyway, so if we stick just to controlling our thoughts, feelings, and choices, we control almost everything that matters.

It’s fear that leads to controlling, so we need to address the fear first—the fear of failing, the fear of disapproval—and then we can just love and teach people beautifully.

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