You Can’t Always Control What Happens, But You Can Control How You React To It

The Arrow Of Judgement And Suffering

“When suffering happens, it forces us to confront life in a different way than we normally do.” — Philip Yancey

Think of a time you tried to control someone or a situation to suit you. Did it turn out as expected? If not, what was the reason? In my experience, trying to control outside conditions rarely proves successful because reality is more powerful. Instead, we ought to accept conditions as they are and change our perception of what is. Now, I can hear you say: “Tony, are you telling me to accept something I hate or dislike in my life.” Yes, and no. I am saying: We ought to accept things we cannot change, because sometimes we are powerless to do anything about it. Similarly, you don’t have to like what is taking place, but accepting it lessens your pain and suffering and allows you to choose inner peace and freedom.

Here’s a point worth considering: Acceptance does not mean resignation or apathy. It is an inner acknowledgement of how things are at the moment. It’s not to say circumstances will not improve in the future. However, at the moment, the situation is what it is, and we ought to release our resistance to how things should be. It bears repeating, because this is an important point: We don’t have to like what is taking place, but we can accept it and work with our present conditions. It reminds me of the tale of The Two Arrows, in which the Buddha tells of a person being struck by an arrow which causes them pain. He asks his student, “What would happen if the person were struck by a second narrow, in exactly the same place?” Now they experience pain and suffering because they have created judgement around the second arrow.

The Buddha says: In life, we cannot control the first arrow because it represents the unexpected conditions of life. But we can control how we respond to the second arrow, which is fuelled by our reaction and judgement. In a similar vein, The Dalai Lama said, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Meaning: unforeseen events will occur in life and we must avoid adding judgement because it fuels our suffering. It requires accepting the cards life hands us and not falling victim to the pain and disappointments of life. Could you do this? Could you allow yourself to drop your resistance and experience inner peace? Perhaps it requires drawing on your inner wisdom to accept conditions you cannot change.

You Are Free To Choose Your Attitude

“I believe the single most significant decision I can make on a day-to-day basis is my choice of attitude.” — Charles W. Swindoll

Expressed differently: trying to control reality is a recipe for pain and suffering because we are limited in who and what we can control. If you’ve been in an intimate relationship and tried to control your partner, you will have experienced conflict and resistance. But if you accept them as they are, the very thing that troubles you about them may actually change. There are no assurances, but you will have changed anyway and found inner peace, which is more important than trying to change other people. We must change our perception of them so we see the situation differently. People will disappoint us and circumstances will not always be favorable, so trying to control reality can only result in pain and misery. Ultimately, life is not about trying to control others or external conditions because these things are out of our control.

Once we accept what we cannot change, we are no longer chained to them and can experience inner peace and freedom. This can take practice, and it may be difficult at first because the ego likes to maintain control. But this is a false sense of control, because if we cannot control other people or external conditions, we are limited in our capacity to control reality. Therefore, we unchain ourselves from the bondage of control, and are free to choose how we respond. We discover unlimited possibilities, and by accepting all that is, it gives you the freedom to be yourself. This freedom is not bound by what others say or do. It is not bound by what happens to you, because a person who is accepting of reality is free to choose their attitude. This is true power. Power is not about trying to control or manipulate other people because, ultimately, it backfires on us.

Can You Accept Things As They Are?

“The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.” — Nathaniel Branden

Considering this, recall the earlier situation or person I asked you about in the opening paragraph. Perhaps it was a family member, a friend, or an intimate partner you tried to control. Maybe it was a job you wanted or a new apartment or an item of technology. Whatever it is, recall the experience as best you can and summon the emotions you experienced. When I ask this question to clients in my coaching practice, they often cite negative emotions, such as anger, frustration, hate, and disappointment. So, if our emotions are our barometer of how we move through life, it makes sense that negative emotions are alerting us to something wrong with our thoughts or actions. In other words, the negative emotions you experience trying to control others or circumstances is life’s way of telling you to stay out of its business.

Therefore, I invite you to pick one or two situations you’ve been trying to control. Ask yourself whether you could accept the situation as it is, even if it is for one day. Note how you feel. Do you feel inner peace, freedom, or a sense of serenity? If you want to take the practice further, try extending it for another day and keep going for seven days or more. I often ask clients to download a habit tracker on their smartphone and track how long they can keep accepting a difficult situation until it no longer causes them misery. You can do it too. It may be difficult at first, but the advantages of non-resistance overshadow the effects of holding on tightly to a situation beyond your control. After all, when we accept life as it is, we are free to act in accordance with reality and liberate ourselves from holding on to negative emotions.