(Click here for Part 1 of this series).

As I am exploring this subject, I see in my mind flashes of interactions with people over many years. There are situations I wanted to unfold in specific directions but that met resistance or outright denial from others. The love interests that were not reciprocated. The business plans that did not receive support from those who had indicated willingness to help me or the potential customers who did not show up. When I was a young man, I had to accept that my body was not talented in the ways that would allow me to perform as an athlete at a competitive level. I was naturally gifted academically in some ways and disinterested or unskilled in others. No amount of tutoring in French could help me learn that language in school.

When I look back over my “achievements” in life, I recognize that much effort, considerable luck and the help of others, combined with some natural, inherent talents in communication and reasoning, were necessary for me to gain a professional degree which matched my skills and temperament. As I look around, I realize that I found a niche where I could grow and thrive. I realize that I am unequipped, by inclination and natural ability, for most societal roles so much better filled by others.

What can I take credit for? I did not create my body or a healthy nervous system or the type of brain I carry around inside my skull. I had no choice over my genes. I did not (as far as I am aware) choose the place, time or family of my birth. Each of these factors came with advantages and disadvantages. For most of my developmental years I followed the suggestions of adults and flowed along the life structure I found myself occupying. As I grew, choices began opening for me, but all within the basic framework accompanying my place in the life around me. I suppose, I could give myself credit for listening to some advice, occasionally making reasonable choices and being a fairly responsible, diligent student. But those qualities may also reflect my basic character. Could I have really done otherwise?

We have all heard some people say, and perhaps we have thought so ourselves, that, “If I can do it anyone could do it”. But is that true? How many variables of innate skill, or lack thereof, chance encounters, the luck of the draw, timing have combined into the shape of my character and life?

I can give myself credit for developing some interests and skills that I seem to have been born with. I also have to take responsibility for not developing others, allowing them to lie fallow due to demands of life, insecurity, lack of support from others, laziness or timing. I think now of life as being like a game of cards. We are each dealt a hand. We can make a few exchanges within the rules of the game, but we have to play with the basic hand with which we began. We can try to be creative about what we have, we can calculate and play the odds and hope for good luck, but our possibilities are not limitless. What can I do with what I have been given? What am I willing to risk? Yet, even risk-taking may be an inherent predisposition, greater for some than others. Can I take credit for a quality that came with me at conception?

This reminds me of the several variations on a parable about three servants, each given one “talent” by their master who is leaving on a trip. When he returns, he asks each to account for what they did with their “talent”. The first reports that the talent was invested and returned tenfold. The second reports an investment that returned a five-fold profit. The third servant hands back the single, original talent, saying that he did not want to risk losing it. The master rewards those who made something from what they were given and punishes the one that did not risk and leaves him with nothing.

The River

At this late point in my existence, the sense of life now feels more like a river, a flow of momentum which carries me, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, sometimes smoothly, sometimes turbulently, always moving… moving … continually without ceasing. What can I control, what can I influence, in this impartial current that carries not just me, but us all? I have learned to be able, most of the time, to keep my head above water. I’ve learned to be able, at times to float on my back and watch the scenery. If I am aware that some whitewater lies ahead (and I am often taken by surprise), I can try to maneuver around, or through it, without swallowing too much water.

Yet, there has been something else at work. There are interests and inclinations that have been part of my subjective world since childhood. My idiosyncratic attraction to mystery has sensitized me to certain qualities in the water that carry the taste of this interest. When encountering ‘molecules’ of these qualities in the current, I have repeatedly swum towards them and allowed them to carry me into eddies and side-flows in the river. These repeated inclinations, although perhaps also determined by my inherent nature, have altered my path from the main channel, deviating over a lifetime, from other possibilities that would have produced a different life.

This river, in addition to all the idiosyncratic possibilities that lead to so many different types of lives for different people, seems to fork in a fundamental way that diverts those it carries towards different destinations, not just life-styles. The vast majority of people seem carried towards lives of external focus, building achievements or failures in social, financial, political activities. They may mark the places they have been, the adventures they have had, the people they have met, the wonderful meals they have consumed at wonderful restaurants as the milestones of their lives.

Most of us ask, “What have you done in your life? Where have you been? What have you seen? Who have you known?” The questions, “What have you learned? How have you been changed? Have you a sense of purpose about your life?” are of a different nature. The former highlight activities. The latter focus on meaning.

The type of questions, the type of milestones one marks on the calendar of one’s life indicate which fork of the river one is carried within. The lesser branch carries its passengers into a life focused more on exploration of the subjective internal world. Interest is more focused on the pursuit of the meaning of existence, both personal and in general. Swimmers in this channel are drawn to exploring the mystery of their inner experiences rather than seeking fame, fortune in the world.

To enter and remain in this branch requires an objective, rational confrontation with imaginary wishes for control and certainty and with illusions about one’s capacity to influence people or events in most situations … and have the outcome be what was wanted … and without unexpected collateral reactions.

Loss of Illusion

Accepting an unwanted reality is a difficult meal to swallow. It is a kind of death … the death of a belief, a hope, a wish. The pattern of acceptance follows a basic format regardless of the loss being grieved. It begins with a long period of Denial, followed by intermittent, shallow, intellectual recognition of the problem, but still with a continuing attempt to cajole and manipulate life into correcting course back towards one’s aim. In grief counseling, this stage is called Bargaining. When it becomes apparent that the “plan” is not working, that one is not exerting effective control, the mood will alternate between stages of Sadness and Anger. People can get trapped in any of these phases or a closed looping back and forth without resolution. The resolution lies in the fifth stage called Acceptance.

Acceptance does not mean one likes the outcome. Rather it is an acceptance of reality. This is the hand I have been dealt. I wish it were any other hand but this, but this is the one I must play, as best I can. Many people will take a short cut into Resignation and believe they have accepted, but this is a deception. Resignation is tinted with sadness and anger. Acceptance has more the taste of sadder but wiser, or relief that the ordeal is over, or to discover oneself finally with an answer as to why one’s attempts to control outcome failed. They failed because it couldn’t be altered. Or, even if maybe, I could have said or done something to change it, whatever that might have been did not happen. So, this is what I have now whether I like it or not. It cannot be changed. Our choice is to live in acceptance and make the best of it or to live in denial and continue to suffer a Quixotic mission in futility.

Which Branch?

Which Branch of the River is carrying me? Well … what motivates me? We can talk about people in general, but the location of any real potential efficacy lies within each of us. So, as I do with myself, I ask you, dear reader, to explore along with me this question of external and internal efficacy, its implications, its limitations and what its pursuit may distract us from confronting.

Ask yourself, “when, in my life, have I had the desire to control people, events, activities?” All right. That obviously would be far too long a list for most of us to compose. How about two or three (or more if you wish) memories of situations where you tried, or always try, or at least wish, to make certain of the outcome? In reviewing these memories, now hopefully with additional understanding, ask yourself:

What was I trying to control?

How many components, people, timing, unforeseen factors would I have had to have complete mastery over to exert control?

Was control possible?

Perhaps you would say, “No. I wasn’t trying or expecting to control. But I did want to influence the situation so that it would turn out the way I wanted it to.” All right.

What was your plan for influence?

How many variables would have to fall into place for your influence to be accepted and the outcome conform to your vision?

If you were only trying to influence and not control, what would you have rated the likelihood of success … 80%, 20%, 10%?

How disappointed were you at the time when things didn’t go as you hoped? If your answer is any more than “mildly”, I would suggest you were hoping for control and only pretending to yourself that you would be satisfied with an attempt at influence.

As you look back now on your examples, ask yourself if there was a degree of wishful thinking in your estimation. What role did luck, the always present wild card, play in the outcomes?

If things did work out as you planned, did you give yourself credit for this accomplishment or did you thank your good luck that everything, including how you approached the situation, worked out as you had hoped. Sometimes it does and sometimes it does not. What makes the difference?

Click here for part 3 of this series.