The downside of control

Recently, a new identity has been added to my list – a scam victim. The price I had to pay for this new identity is the funding that I had for the whole summer. For the past few days, I have been trying to draw wisdom from this experience in life, and here is the first post on the many thoughts that I had.

If we divide everything in life into internal and external categories, money probably belongs to the external one for most people. It was only after this first personal financial crash that I came to realise, most unhappiness associated with the external things is linked to a desire for control. If we do not delude ourselves that we have controls over something, we will not have pain associated with those things. Take the weather for example. Its natural variations are something that most of us get used to. Yet, we find it hard to accept when weather forecast got it wrong and spoiled our planned picnic with rains, or marathon with burning sunlight. This is because we assumed complete control over things that we frankly have little of it. Although many of us may assume that we have control over our financial assets, the unfortunate truth is we do not. Partial control simply means that things can still go haywire. There are so many ways money can be lost in modern life: physical cash can be stolen, the bank account can be hacked, and all the monetary tokens would become valueless should our current financial systems collapse. The same principle applies to power, friendship/relationship and even health. All these conventional sources of joy can and will leave us and bring us unhappiness, as Schopenhauer once put in his essays.

That is not to say that we are completely powerless in life. We still have controls over two things in life, action and attitude. These two attributes can help us exert influence on other external things, but they cannot bring us control. To use them well, I propose two mental models that may help us.

The first is the normal distribution and it is linked to the actions we take. The gist of the normal distribution is to think events in our life not as an absolute value but as a relative probability. Our actions can increase or decrease the likelihood of certain events’ happening by pushing up or pulling down the average, but no matter how much we do, it cannot change the fact that undesirable things can still happen and overthrow our assumed control over life.

The second is perspective thinking and it is related to our attitude. As Hamlet said, there is no good or bad but thinking makes it so. It provides us with extreme confidence to deal with the seemingly unfortunate events in life if we adjust our objectives to be a philosopher. Philosophy means love of wisdom, and to a philosopher, nothing is more desirable than events that increase our wisdom, even though those events may bring us physical and/or emotional pain. Many Buddhist monks chose to give up all their life savings so that they can leave the materialistic life behind and gain the freedom of the soul. Things that we want can at the same time be something that some people strong detest, and the things that we desperately want to drive away, maybe the things that some wise men are actively seeking. When life gives you a lemon, do not complain that it did not give you an apple, and perhaps not even immediately turn that into a lemonade. Learn to appreciate that lemon for its sourness is what life has to teach you.

By forsaking the illusion of control over external things, we will avoid compromising our actions and attitude for life’s losses and regain our control on how we face them. As William Ernest Henley’s Invictus goes, we probably have no control over how charged with punishments the scroll, but we can remain as the captain of our soul.

For more information, I recommend Mo’s talk at Google


Personalizing medicine