Whether we like it or not, we’re all control freaks. Each and every one of us wishes to be completely in charge of the things that matter most to us, like our health, work, and personal lives.
And yet, try as we may, there are many things that are entirely beyond our control, regardless of our attempts to exercise authority over them. No matter how much we fear the prospect of failure, regret or even death, often there is little we can do to prevent their coming.
This contradiction, between our hopes to control and our inability to do so, is often the cause of much distress. At best, it leaves us disappointed, and at the worst, crippled with misery.
In the wise words of Lao Tzu,
“Trying to control the future is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place. When you handle the master carpenter’s tools, chances are that you’ll cut your hand.”
To free ourselves of pain, we must therefore let go of our desire to control the future. But how?
In the Hands of the Unknown
We can’t escape the fact that many aspects of our lives lie within the firm grasp of the hands of the unknown. Who we’ll marry, where we’ll work, how long we’ll live — many of these questions cannot be answered now, but only with the passing of time.
Logic would, thereby, tell us to forget about the future. To hell with it, it would have us say. We’ll just wait and see what happens. And yet, try as we may, going with the flow isn’t always as easy to execute as it rolls off the tongue.
Not only isn’t easy to forget about the future, but it might not be a great idea, either. There’s a lot to be learned from foresight and rational planning. Issues arise, however, when our tendency to plan becomes a tendency to predict, and subsequently to become fearful about what we think the future might hold.
Furthermore, often our thoughts about the future rarely involve any planning, — only endless rumination over what might come to be.
We can’t ever tell exactly what will happen to us. Even after years of contemplation, our future remains uncertain. We’re subject to many different variables in our lifetimes: the influences of other people, the decisions that they make and unforeseen circumstances like illness.
Our internal telescope only allows us to see so far. After that, the rest is unknown. And that’s okay.
Trust in the Face of Ignorance
Whenever we try to envisage the potentially troubling prospects of the future, we often imagine ourselves unable to cope. If somebody had asked me years ago how I’d handle the news that my future fiancé would be diagnosed with brain cancer, I’d have been certain that such a weight would be too much to bear.
In our heads, situations seem far worse. We can’t cope with those imagined traumas of our future — and that’s because the future rarely materializes itself as we’d expect.
Even once my partner was diagnosed, I expected that, one year later, she’d be unwell, lifeless and miserable. Instead, we’re going away this weekend to celebrate our sixth anniversary and she’s happier and more vibrant than ever. In some ways, her tragic diagnosis has enabled her to appreciate life more than she has in the past.
It’s funny, because the situation I’d imagined twelve months ago didn’t look like this one. I couldn’t handle that situation, and yet that situation never actually came to be.
When faced with the realities we’ve imagined, both the situation itself and our capacity to deal with it prove to be entirely different from our imagined ideas. And when the time comes, if our fears do indeed come true, we will be able to cope.
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” — Marcus Aurelius
Like the fighter who is unafraid of conflict for he knows how to defend himself, so, too, should we accept the future without fear, knowing that we will find the courage to cope with whatever might come our way.
A Stoic Way of Thinking
Stoic philosopher Seneca put it best,
“The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”
The ideas mentioned in this article are, largely, those that form the basis of Stoicism. Stoic teachings advise us to focus solely on one thing and one thing only in our endeavors: now.
According to Stoic philosophy, all negative emotions arise when we lose touch with the present moment. When we’re trying to control the future, we’re not thinking about now — and therein lies the problem. Our emotional unrest usually arises from our disconnectedness from the present.
In times during which our suspected fate begins to trouble us, therefore, our anchor is this moment. We can return to it to find peace, simply by remembering to be here and not there.
It’s crucial that, when lost in anxious thought, we remind ourselves to stick with the situation at hand. “Why is this so unbearable? Why should I be fearful right now?”
Because at this moment, you’re reading my words on your screen. Perhaps the birds are singing in the background. Maybe you have a hot cup of coffee in hand and you’re in the company of a loved one.
Or maybe you’re uncomfortable, on a crowded train or struggling to sleep in bed. But wherever you find yourself, when you separate your current experience from your thoughts, is it really that bad? Or is your mind elsewhere — somewhere that far worse, that doesn’t exist?
And lastly, when you recognize that your thoughts have you under their control, just come back. Let go of your restless ideas and mental projections, breathe deep, and return to now. Let the future take care of itself.