Losing Control, Gaining Gratitude

A Super Bowl champion will be crowned today, and football fans and announcers will talk about how the winning team controlled the line of scrimmage, emotions, and the game. Perhaps the ultimate misnomer will be thrown out: Controlled their own destiny.

I’ve played and coached football, and lived life with what I like to consider a keen eye for observation for 43 years, and the term control should rarely, if ever, be applied to either. Sure, football and life both have elements of command, composure, and overpowering, but control is never complete. It is always limited. It is always conditional. And even when it seems like it is complete, it’s only because we aren’t considering at least a dozen factors we don’t control but are going in our favor at the moment. We have complete control over  nothing in life, and what we believe we control is only by definition, not reality.

What do we completely control? Emotions? Good luck controlling them. We don’t control our emotions any more than we control the weather. If we truly had complete control over our emotions, most of us would exert our control in order never to feel lonely, anxious, sad, or irritated, and yet we do. Emotions come and go. Sometimes they match what we want, sometimes they don’t. We don’t control our emotions, and yet, it’s not a problem.

What do we completely control? Our thoughts? I don’t know about you, but I have doubts, fears, and distracted thoughts all the time. If I controlled my thoughts I would always choose to be focused and confident. If I completely controlled my thoughts, I would control them into inventing a helpful product everyone in the world desired and would purchase for a nice profit, and I’d sit back, cash checks, and write witty blog posts all day. But I don’t control my thoughts, so I go off to work 6 or 7 days a week trying to point in the right direction and influence what I can. We don’t completely control our thoughts, and yet, it’s not a problem.

What do we completely control? Our actions? I will grant this, if it seems like we control anything in life, it’s simple actions that don’t involve interacting with too many other people. We might control little actions like getting dressed and selecting music on an ipod, little things like that, but if you’ve ever been injured or sick, or had a coach or someone else who influenced when, where, and how you conducted your actions, your illusion of control over your physical actions was probably challenged.

I used to take for granted the control I had over walking and standing when and where I wanted, but nerve damage from a back injury destroyed my illusion of control. All of sudden, the control I had over something as simple as standing and coaching on the sideline didn’t seem to be within my control at all. The control I might have been able to claim was only temporary. The weakness in my left leg made me feel quite out of control of my own simple actions, like walking and standing. I came to realize the simple control I used to enjoy was temporary. At best, when our actions match our intentions, I like to think we have perfect influence over actions, but it’s only because other uncontrolled factors are going in our favor. Even when it seems like control, it’s control only by definition, a misleading definition at that. We truly only have influence over our actions, and yet, it’s not a problem.

What do you control in a game or life? No interaction is completely controlled. The world is full of interacting forces/influences every second of every day. If an action or outcome of a play results in what you intended, it doesn’t mean you controlled it. The outcome simply matched your intention. That’s not control, it’s icing on the cake. It’s a bonus. We don’t always get what we want, but it’s great when we do. We don’t control any interaction, and yet it’s not a problem. Our influence is so often enough.

Do not fear this lack of control, indeed, a lack of control is one of the very reasons we compete and take on challenges. There is a reason we don’t compete in activities that have no challenge. For any activity we might be able to control (if control truly existed), there is simply nothing to measure against an opponent to make it fun, challenging, and exciting. Think of some simple actions you are tempted to believe you control. Do you engage in those activities? No. There is a reason we don’t run football plays against air for guaranteed touchdowns every time. The opponent has a purpose. The opponent creates a challenge that we do not control. Competing against an opponent creates an unknown outcome, and that is fun, challenging, and exciting.

It is precisely our lack of control that makes competition and challenge delicious. We don’t compete to control. That would be boring. We compete to influence! We want to feel powerful, and real power doesn’t come from control, it comes from successfully exerting influence over that which we cannot control.

In discovering our true power, influence, we are no longer confused or frustrated about trying to control the uncontrollable. This confusion and frustration that accompanies the illusion of control often leads to the blame game, and we begin to blame anything and everything, including ourselves, for controlling something in a direction we don’t desire.

Influence is incredibly empowering. When it works favorably, it feels like control, because the process matches our intentions, but unlike the illusion of control, it never promises what it can’t deliver. Like a boat in the water, we have some command of the boat, but so does the water. Sometimes it is exerting minimal influence, and sometimes it is exerting its influence with a raging storm. Sometimes our best influence is knowing when battle the storm and when to seek safe harbor.

I jettisoned belief control from my life about a year and half ago, and the difference I feel is impressive. With a clearer understanding of how the world works, I have an emotional freedom that I never expected but always desired. I still screw up and act as if control exists sometimes, but my recovery to clarity is much quicker now.

I think the biggest benefit of influence over control is the gratitude I feel for simple pleasures that I influence but do not control. For example, in the past year, I’ve known two gentlemen under 45 years of age who went to bed believing they were perfectly healthy but died in their sleep.Understanding my lack of control in this process has led to feeling more gratitude for waking up each day and getting another crack at this great life I have been given.

Two months ago, a wheel basically fell off my wife’s car when a strut broke and a cascade of suspension problems occurred. She thought she was in control of that car when it did her bidding, but as it turns out, the car is always under a whole set of influences few of us ever consider. He actual control of the car was the same before and after the wheel fell off, but her sense of control was vastly different, her illusion of control smashed to smithereens after the car crumbled beneath her. Thank goodness the forces of the universe came together to break the car in a parking lot instead of at 75 miles per hour on I75.

So these days, when the forces of the universe don’t converge in my favor, I try to remember that I never had control, and I try to move on by influencing what I can with as little frustration as possible. But when the forces of the forces of the universe converge in the moment to give me what I want, I can’t help but consider it…..miraculous. I’m not really a miracle kind of guy, but I can’t think of a better term to described what I sense. With that miracle in hand, I feel fortunate and experience gratitude for simple pleasures like waking up and arriving at my destination safely.

To me, this gratitude for the influence I have is the most accurate, powerful way to conduct my life. I hope you find the same and enjoy your Super Bowl Sunday. Get after making plays in your world with the influence you have at your command.

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