Some of the most curious ideas a society develops will rarely be remarked upon. Once an idea is commonplace it becomes common sense. Perhaps the most curious idea that our society perpetuates – so normal that it is the theme of childrens’ cartoons or inspirational posters – is the idea that we can and should take full control of our lives. We are masters of our destiny, we must only try with enough passion, we need only strive. We can do anything we set out to do.
There are situations, it is true, in which this idea has some merit. It sometimes works well as a counterbalance to passivity or denial of responsibility. But it is, on its own and without qualifications, a bizarre and damaging notion.
We must, we are told, live our best life (vomit). We can achieve the perfect career that combines job satisfaction with respect and high pay. We can will into existence the perfect romantic partnership. We can build our dream home. We can think smarter than the next person. And somehow the ‘can’ so easily becomes a ‘should’, for if you fail to do these things you are to blame. You have not tried hard enough. You have not truly believed in yourself. You have not been sufficiently positive. You are a mediocre version of yourself. You have failed to take responsibility for ending your suffering. This is the toxic thinking buried within the notion that we should take control of our lives.
There are moments in our lives when exerting ourselves, doing things differently, believing in ourselves a bit more, can be useful. But there are so many other factors at play in what happens to us. Our genes. Our upbringing. Our emotional conditioning. The social situation in which we find ourselves. And sure, you can in theory remove yourself from your social setting, but what if the effect of your social setting is that you don’t want to? And this even before we get to economic constraints, which are a massive driver of what people feel able to do, or unable to do. Take a risk! Say those who have such a comfortable cushion to fall back on that they will never truly suffer from a risk. If you’ll end up on benefits because your business failed and you have to visit foodbanks to feed your kids, the level of risk is different. And then there’s the obvious increase in opportunities given to those who come from monied backgrounds. How lucky I was to fall into this job at a company where a friend of my father is partner!
Our emotional lives are also not fully within our control. Sometimes I watch certain colleagues in admin jobs in my office and realise they wouldn’t want to be promoted. Even the minor decisions of doing admin cause them stress. Being promoted would create stresses they couldn’t deal with. If this seems patronising, rest assured that I think the same thing of myself. In a low level technical job I see that the decisions of management would cause me stress. I have no desire to be promoted. I do want the bigger salary, but I couldn’t do it. Stress in childhood made me too sensitive to everyday stresses. I can learn to cope with stress better, but I’ll never be as good at it as someone who learned to be resilient to external stress from a young age. It goes almost without saying that our emotional structure will also determine the limits and extent of our personal relationships. Change is possible, with difficulty, but not re-writing history on a blank slate.
The truth is, we cannot control large parts of our lives, yet we are told that we should be able to do whatever we want in life. We spend huge amounts of time, effort and money trying to fill the gap. This is a cultural phenomonen that takes many forms. Many people obsess about getting their homes perfect. Some homes are so perfect that it is impossible to live in them. A small scuff of mud renders them imperfect, so they must become an isolated bubble detached from the real world. In this place, and only in this place, can the owner have full control. It is sacred ground. And tiny. The rest of the world continues apace outside, beyond control, and the teenage children still hate you, and the money that might have benefited you still flows into tax havens, and the house will be re-decorated in woodchip wallpaper when you go.
Besides our homes there is an even smaller piece of property we can control, or at least try to: our bodies. The inexorable rise of yoga speaks volumes for the need to have control of the body. There is an addictive rush to disciplining your body, whether with exercise or with food. Dieting also helps us take control. Except it doesn’t: the evidence is that diets don’t work. One could also question whether yoga and meditation is making the world more present or at peace with itself, or even more able to cope with life. But the feeling of control is what matters. We are meant to be in control, so let’s feel it.
I sometimes think another of the great control drugs of our time is cars. Why are cars so addictive? They confer upon one the ability to control the immediate environment, through aircon, excluding the weather, keeping other people away from you. And they have that feeling of almost effortless control over half a ton of metal. The rage of the motorist at the slow cyclist or the pedestrian or the other driver is the rage of one whose illusion of control has been momentarily shattered. Someone got in my way. But moments later I drive on and the illusion is restored.
There are a couple of less illusory ways of taking control: being rich, for example. We want to become rich and powerful not just in order to win comforts, but so that other people can’t tell us what to do. And so that we can tell others what to do. That is why wealth also becomes addictive I suspect (I can only guess, never having tried it). To have a hundred million pounds is not enough, for there is always a higher level of control to be reached. One can become like Soros or Musk: conscious shapers of society. And they do have an effect, there is some reality to the control that riches grant to us. But there is illusion too. One can’t make people like you, as both Musk and Soros could tell you. Famously one cannot buy love, or even happiness – for control is only a part of happiness. Rich people in our society are cursed to discover the limits of the control we are all sold.
Even those of us who aren’t rich can dip our toes into consuming as far as our resources allow. Shopping becomes an obsession with some. There are days when I feel it too. What is the desire to own more except the desire to have more control? But because so much of our lives is naturally beyond the control of an ape of heavy brain, the control is always going to be just beyond the next purchase, just beyond reach.
Most of us will never attain riches, and many of us can’t over-indulge too much on the retail therapy. Self-help books, on the other hand, are available to everyone who can read. They are available on a second-hand bookstall in Kenya or for a pound on Abebooks, for the world is flooded with them. There is a self-help book for every situation and every type of individual malaise. Become more resilient. Become happier. Think smarter than the next person. Be a stronger woman. Attain inner peace. Make lots of money. Make friends. Organise your life better. Organise your room better. Be more efficient. Exude success. In other words: take control of your life.
So it is that we must constantly live with the control gap: the gap between our belief that we should be in control, and the experience of not being in control. I believe it creates a lot of the most strange phenomena our society produces, from driver rage at pedestrianisation schemes, through the rise of Jordan Peterson, to the use of mindfulness by corporations. It creates also many of our most damaging and normal obsessions, for we are forever convinced that we can fill the gap.
This is not an argument to surrender to our fate. There are religions that have argued that, but I suspect it has always been a way of allowing a canny class of rulers to have an easier time of it. There is a middle course between giving in to fate and thinking we are in control of our lives. It is difficult to say exactly where the correct middle path lies, and perhaps it is even different for different people. We have to explore it ourselves, but we can only begin this exploration properly if we reject both extremes.
There is another real form of taking control: working with others to take collective control. This is important, one of the things I’m very keen on in fact, but this question of what control we have as an individual has a huge impact on our ability to work together with others. People who are used to trying to exert full control all the time are unable to work collectively. To be able to work with others we must accept a loss of individual control, for the obvious reason that it is simply not possible to have a collective in which everyone gets their own way all the time. Again, working together is not about a total loss of control, nor a demand that we give up individuality. There is a balance to be struck, as always. We can live both together and apart, collectively and individually. The collective control, with all the compromises it requires, can help us gain more overall control of our lives.
In order to enable that, and in order to simply become more sane, we have to reject the common sense of the day and see many of our addictions and obsessions for what they are: attempts to resolve the irresolvable. You can’t be fully in control of your life. It’s time to stop trying.