(Warning: this is a self-indulgent reflection about myself, and is for that reason probably quite boring to others. But hey, it’s my blog, I can do this sometimes)
I was talking with a friend about the importance of feeling in control of how things are going — in life, at work, when planning a party, etc. Feeling in control is rather important to this person, though she herself is not a controlling or manipulating person. It’s just that she likes things to unfold as they should, and finds herself very irritated and often angry when people or circumstances take a different path. If she’s done a lot of work to prepare an event or activity, it seems a personal affront when people decide to ignore her instructions or skip the event. This person likes to plan ahead, know when things are happening, who will be at parties, and what the expectations are.
I am pretty much the opposite. While some people plan their way through life, I tend to improvise. My friend is very organized, keeps a calendar, and is quite neat. I’m comfortable being disorganized. I don’t keep a calendar and tend to tackle tasks haphazardly.
My approach yields benefits and drawbacks. Compared to my friend, I don’t to get irritated as much when things don’t go as planned. I remember back when I was night manager of a pizza place a colleague of mine would get panicky whenever we were understaffed and got a large rush. She’d be running around, angry at the scheduling manager for not staffing us right, mad if the ovenman couldn’t handle all the pizzas, and pushing people to make their pizzas faster.
I would shift into high speed mode, to be sure (and as with dish washing, I was a fast pizza maker), but would try to calm people down. “OK, we’re understaffed, let’s just do our best and not panic.” I’d make jokes, hand out free coupon cards to customers who had to wait, give them free beverages while they were waiting, and figure that the extra money we were making compared to our labor costs warranted that treatment. “A rush is no reason to stop having fun…” I did expect the workers to do their best — this was a job after all — but they can’t change the fact we’re understaffed in a rush!
Even when I do plan (I am the main organizer of the travel courses, planning hotels, itineraries, etc.) I’m willing to see the plan shift — a plan is only an idea of what should happen, but if events demand, we can improvise. Simply, I know I’m not in control of how my life unfolds: the events and people around me, or the circumstances that shape my future. I’m fine with that.
Nonetheless: This is my life, damn it, I’m going to be in control of it. My life.
By that I mean I try to control my choices and to some extent my mood. I do not easily yield to someone else’s desires or demands unless I want to. Now, often I want to – I like helping people, and have no problem doing things friends and family ask me to do. I like doing things that make others happy, so I tend to try to help out whenever I can. But I rebel in cases either where expectations are made that I think are inappropriate, or when people demand I do things. I don’t like taking orders or following rules.
While that sounds immature (and especially if I’m tired I’m sure I too often take that to a point where I’m acting immature), I think it balances with my ability to accept not being in control of the circumstances and people around me. You gotta take life as it comes, and respond to people with the default assumption that the people I’m dealing with are basically good even if they do things that are not what I want. That makes it easier to not be offended by what people say or do, or not get upset when they make decisions that seem disrespectful or ignorant of my desires/needs. I don’t want to be controlled, I certainly shouldn’t expect to be in control of others!
Circumstances are also out of my control. For instance, once I knock over a glass of soda I put too close to the edge of the table, that event is outside my control. I shouldn’t get upset because I or someone else put the glass there (though I could do a ‘note to self’ — place the glass more safely next time). Once a decision was made in the past it becomes engulfed in that field of circumstances, and anger at it is misplaced. Absent a time machine, it can’t be undone. I can control how I react — grab paper towels and clean up the spill.
Now, what about when horrific things happen, like a traffic death or a murder — can those be labeled mere circumstances? Before answering that I’d note that a lot of people get upset and stressed out over the minor incidents so often that being able to take the minor stresses as they come by remaining calm and “in control” would make life easier. But I’d argue that in theory the same is true for life’s tragedies. I’m not going to pretend that it would be easy to cope with, say, falling off a ladder and losing a leg. But if that happens, anger and resentment would be drags on one’s energy and the capacity to find a positive direction to take life. That’s why forgiveness is so liberating, it’s taking anger and resentment at an unchangeable past event and lets it go — the energy spent on anger can then be used in the present.
So I do like to be in control after all, but not of other people or the external events of the day. Rather, I take control of and responsibility for the choices I make, and my capacity to enjoy life. That is at one level very selfish, but it also makes it easier to selfishly choose to help others. It also seems to work, I genuinely enjoy life and can at least handle the little ups and downs of the day without losing a sense of happiness/contentment. Not always, of course, but overall I think attitude really matters in life — to control what I can control, and accept and adapt to the rest.