It’s Easy to Surrender Responsibility When We Don’t Have Control

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To say you have no choice is to relieve yourself of responsibility.

Patrick Ness, Monsters of Men

The Realities of Control

Control. Oh, how we want it. We want to know what to do to create specific results. We want to know the path to getting what we want. We want to know what it takes to keep ourselves safe. We want to know what we need to do to get you to do what we want. We want equations, formulas, dials, buttons, and levers which give us a certain result at a certain time in a certain way. We want a course of study that produces the job, career, vocation, or standard of living we desire; then we want that path to produce as expected. Oh yes, we want control.

Control is defined as the “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.” Control is ultimately about the power to get what we want.

Of course we want control. Why wouldn’t we? We all want what we want when we want it. We are motivated at our most basic level to pursue self-interest. Control gives us the power to satisfy our needs and our wants. The problem with control, with power, is that we struggle to throttle it. In the absence of external limitations, we struggle to wield it with wisdom and restraint. Our basic needs can quickly evolve to selfish desires at the expense of others.

Fortunately, we are blessed with a world that happily restrains us. Our control ends where someone else’s begins or where nature exerts her immutable laws. We frequently rail against our limits, wailing and gnashing our teeth as we suffer the impotence of one pressed up against life’s restraints. We exist along the edges of what we want and what the world, or others, are willing to allow, always searching for a point where we might press our advantage.

Our desire for control isn’t always nefarious. We do possess good intentions and spend most of our lives living between what we control and what we don’t control, trying to do the best we can for ourselves and often for others. Alas, even with our best intentions, we discover that we usually have far less control than we’d like. For better and worse, this is our reality.

We control far less than we think, far less than we want, and far less than we need. Most of us feel fear in the face of this reality as it centers on an uncertainty we do not want to face or admit. What we think is control is more often the mirage of control – a place where we fool ourselves into thinking we have more power and influence than we actually have.

When We Don’t Have Control

The question we need to answer is: what do we do when we don’t have control? First of all, we need to acknowledge the reality of our level of control. We often confuse control with authority. With authority, we feel that we can make things happen by virtue of our title or position. Authority does give us a level of influence through assigned duties and responsibilities. However, this only goes so far.

One may have control over signing a contract, hiring a person, firing a person, or approving a check but the power in those duties is matched by the opposing set of choices on the other side of each point of control. Someone else has the power to act with or against whatever we choose to do. Authority also has limits on its control.

Now we cross over into a trickier relationship with control. Knowing we want control and yet are ultimately limited in our ability to manage the world to the outcomes we desire, what do we do? The danger for us is that we tend to surrender responsibility in the absence of control. This is where our authority/control delusion takes hold: if I don’t have control, it’s not my responsibility.

Why is it easy to surrender responsibility when we don’t have control? Because we tell ourselves we can’t do anything about it and can now blame someone else for the results. If I can’t control it, I don’t own it, and it therefore must be someone else’s problem.

Taking Responsibility

If the outcome is not ours to control, do we still have responsibility? Yes, we do. We are always responsible for our choices. Responsibility is what we need to hold tightly even as we release the outcome that is not ours to own.

What happens when we take this kind of radical responsibility? We show up differently. We see others, and their imperfections, differently. Not as means to an end but as human beings with innate dignity and value as well as their own path. We see ourselves differently because we invest fully and own our actions fully even though we can’t control the ultimate result. We try anyway.

In this fashion, we allow our effort to multiply because we give all of what we have even as we know it might not be enough. This radical ownership of ourselves rather than grasping at everything that is not ours liberates us, detaches us, from what we do not control and gives us a path to peace knowing we emptied ourselves. Win or lose, we become more in the process.

Focusing on our responsibility rather than our lack of control frees and empowers us independently of the result we desperately want. We begin to realize that we always have choices, that struggle is necessary, and that even when we lose, we may still be winning as our stewardship of our effort leads us to the unexpected.

A Hedge Against Uncertainty

The answer to uncertainty? The inoculation against doubt? Responsibility. Own your choices, reactions, effort, and courage in a new way. Release the myth of control over the world around you and own the one thing over which you truly do have control: your choices. Then, own them fully and trust that when the dust has settled, you will have done, thought, and chosen to engage every possible corner of your being in the battle knowing that you might lose but that you will have become greater in the doing.

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