Thursday, March 6, 2014

Control, self-control, and what to do when it's lacking

One of the more useful skills I've acquired in the past decade (or perhaps mostly acquired; I'm still inconsistent) is the ability to live with uncertainty. This is something that was not on my bucket list. Then again, most of what I've learned and most of the ways I've grown in the past decade weren't on my bucket list. Eventually, perhaps, one learns that "What I want to do with my life" is a pretty useless concept. "What kind of person I want to be" is a goal that's more adaptable to the variety of circumstances that life sends your way.

Uncertainty is difficult to deal with. We are human and terrestrial: we don't like being up in the air. Of course, we're almost always up there -- we just don't perceive it that way. One can argue that we need the illusion of being in control, but that's an oversimplification. There are things within our grasp, things we need to control: tempers and spending and the rate at which water flows into the bathtub and other such stuff.

There are also things we'd like to control, like careers and children's behavior and whether or not people we love return our affection, or are capable of returning it. We'd like to control the outcome of health problems and mental deterioration, of birth defects and learning disabilities.We'd like to control pain, discomfort, and the suffering of others.

I suppose we'd like someone, somewhere, to take control of the people who take guns to malls or drink before driving. Probably we don't want to have to do that ourselves, because it might put us at risk. The idea that someone else's problems might wreak havoc with our semi-orderly lives is terrifying. I supposed because we have no way to control that.

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The other day I read a passage from Made to Stick to Little Guy about military planning, and it included the Army adage, "No plan survives ten minutes of contact with the enemy." He liked that. We talked about why it's important to make plans, but foolish to expect things to go as planned. We make plans so that we've thought through the issues and options, and are familiar with the problem to the extent that we can see it.

Little Guy also liked the idea of Commander's Intent, which is a succinct directive designed to allow anyone at any level to understand the goal, yet modify action as circumstances require. A large part of success when you're under fire (whether in battle or parenting) is determined by being able to keep the goal in sight, as you use your judgment in figuring out how to reach it.

Commander's Intent acknowledges that we can't control all circumstances; what we can do is respond to changing conditions in a manner that's in keeping with our objectives.

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I sometimes ponder how people adapt to situations over which they have minimal or no control. How does one deal with living in a war zone? What does a woman sold into white slavery do to find the courage to go on? How does the mindset of a street orphan in Cairo differ from mine?

I recently read The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal. (I am, in fact, reading a half-chapter aloud to Little Guy and Snuggler a couple of times a week as part of our homeschooling. It's truly excellent.)

One subchapter tells of the Nobel prize winning physiologist Archibald Hill, who explored the issue of exercise fatigue. He proposed the idea that we don't get tired because of muscle exhaustion, but because our brain sends a message that screams "STOP!" to prevent exhaustion. The thing is, just because the brain tells you you're too tired to go on doesn't mean you've reached your limit. It's a trick.

Interestingly, the same concept applies to self-control. Our brains tell us we can't stand to be patient a moment more -- and we believe them. But if your child's life depended on your patience, you'd find a way to curb your temper. We can stand far more than we want to. We can handle far more than we expect. The trouble arises when we start to believe we're trapped or stuck or have reached our limit before it's true.

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Sometimes the answer to a difficult situation lies in flexibility rather than in control.

Sometimes the answer lies in patience.

Sometimes it is found in endurance.

And sometimes it simply isn't found. Sometimes what's asked of us is  to keep taking whatever steps we can take for as long as we can take them, even if we don't know where we will end up and don't think we can do it. If you can do that and still be true to your Commander's Intent, you are probably a hero even if you never become famous or your problems never go away.  


  1. Great post, thanks! I just finished reading Kelly McGonigal's book, too, and got a lot out of it.

  2. Your statement that sometimes the answer to a difficult situation lies in flexibility rather than in control is so true and very timely for me. Thanks.

  3. So glad to see a new post from you. Your words are so inspiring to me, helping me to focus on what truly matters. I cant wait to get started on both of those books.