Here we are. Most of us are sitting in our houses, quarantined due to a global pandemic about which there are a million opinions, a million predictions, a million fear-mongers, and a million skeptics. No matter what level the situation has impacted us financially or business-wise, it has interrupted all of our lives - and for most people, in profoundly negative and frustrating ways.
With this crisis more than any other, unless you’re a vaccine researcher, there’s absolutely nothing we can do to solve it except … well… doing nothing. We are completely powerless, trusting only quarantine procedures, safety guidelines, and the work of larger organizational and medical developments to put it behind us. Even when it is finally “behind us,” we are constantly being told how we are only going to “return” to a “new normal” - not the old one.
I’ve been considering how much the last few years of my life have been about learning acceptance. So many things have happened that were completely out of my control: job loss, car wrecks, a full year of feeling God was totally silent and distant, not to mention nearly two months of totally unexpected delay over government papers that nearly prevented me from finally moving to the Middle East after seven months of fundraising and training.
It seems painfully obvious, but the most powerful skill I have learned is to stop, take a deep breath, and remind myself, “I have no control over that situation. The only thing I can control is my response.” In fact, this mindset seems so obvious, especially after a few years of developing it, that it feels kind of silly and even pointless to write a blog post about it. But then I think back on what I’ve seen in other people - and what I see in myself from just a few years ago - and I realize how this profound and “obvious” truth is not our natural way of looking at things, and the content in this post (however feebly presented) is desperately needed.
So I want to challenge you to take the first step on making your own “new normal” today - and I promise it will make all the following steps so much easier to bear. Luckily, it’s extremely simple. All you have to do is learn to practice this simple mantra, “I have no control over this. The only thing I can control is my response.” (If you prefer another word then “mantra,” that’s fine. It’s not meant to be magical or anything.) Now, it’s one to thing to hear those words or even to force yourself to say them, but when you can actually feel them, deep down, it changes everything. The only way to feel them, though, is to repeatedly remind yourself of that simple truth even when you don’t feel it.
The amazing thing is that this attitude shift works for all the problems of life - from the biggest to the smallest. In The Lord of the Rings, as Frodo was struggling with the crippling weight of his task, Gandalf said something very similar to him:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
In other words, you can’t control it, Frodo - but you can control your response. It’s not just for the big, overwhelming problems of life, like being asked to carry a ring halfway across the world determine everyone’s fate. This attitude is just as helpful during the smaller frustrations that tend to raise our blood pressure and fill us with frustration or even anger. Traffic jams, long lines at the DMV, breaking a glass - it is relevant to everything from the seemingly insignificant problems to the earth-shattering ones. From my own very personal experience with the long and confusing government delay described above, it is especially relevant to seasons of prolonged uncertainty and total lack of control - like what we are experiencing right now.
Acknowledging that we have no control is not resigning ourselves or admitting defeat. It is actually opening ourselves to see new possibilities instead of obsessing over the things we wish were different but cannot change. It’s a way to find clarity of insight into what we actually can do instead of focusing on all the things we can’t. Some of the wisest teachers from all human cultures and traditions have been in touch with this reality. For example, the Tao te Ching is an especially excellent resource for developing the skills (and I believe they are skills) of acceptance, patience, presence, and peace. Here is a small section from chapter 23:
If you open yourself to insight,
you are at one with insight
and you can use it completely.
If you open yourself to loss,
you are at one with loss
and you can accept it completely.
Chapters like this are the reason that I started my podcast, A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching. There is simple but profound wisdom here. The two halves of this stanza are like the two blades of the scissors that cut through anxiety and frustration. Let’s reverse the order for a second. First, we open ourselves to loss: “I have no control over this.” This prepares us to accept reality completely. It’s important to remember that acceptance isn’t the same thing as approval. We must learn to look reality in the face and say, “Here you are, and here I am. What’s next?”
Our mind gives us the illusion, even if we don’t put it into words, that if we just stress out enough or feel enough anger and frustration, then somehow the situation will change. That somehow we can gain the power of change simply by letting our passions run wild. Opening yourself to loss, or admitting “I have no control over this,” is the first step in deconstructing that lie.
Second, we open ourselves to insight: “The only thing I can control is my response.” By fixing our perspective and acknowledging the only thing we actually have power over, then we open ourselves up to new insights because our mind is freed up from clutching and grasping at the things that we can’t control. The next stanza of that chapter says:
Open yourself to the Tao,
then trust your natural responses;
and everything will fall into place.
Now, you’ll have to listen to my podcast, or at least read the introduction post to the blog series, to understand the meaning of Tao and how we can fit it into a Christian framework. Short version is, it’s nothing more than the natural order of the universe, or the way God intended things to be. There are some times where we can even (loosely) compare it to God.
The point here is, once we have opened ourselves to loss (I can’t control this) and to insight (I can control my reaction), then we are at the point of fully opening ourselves up to the Tao/God. The next two lines are tricky, though, and will probably raise some eyebrows. “Wait, you’re telling me that if I just trust my own instincts, everything will turn out alright? That doesn’t sound very realistic and/or Christian.”
Saint Augustine famously said, “Love God and do whatever you please.” At first, this provocative phrase sounds like he is giving full license for living a destructive and self-centered lifestyle. But Augustine’s point was quite different. If you truly love God, then what pleases him will become what pleases you. We put the cart before the horse when we try to build a “Christian lifestyle” or “Christian ethics” and assume that they can lead us to God. They may be valuable and have some positive effects - but they don’t truly change the heart.
I have no idea what the next season will look like. I don’t even know what next month will look like, since reopening deadlines in my country keep getting pushed back. But I am confident of this one thing: this three-part trio of openness and acceptance are the only way to keep myself sane and find that, whatever happens, everything is falling into place - not because I have some magical, miraculous power, but simply because openness leads to adaptability, which means that I know I will be able to adapt to whatever comes next. And isn’t that what it means to say everything is falling into its place? I may not like whatever comes next, at least not at first, but I’m ready for it.
And it all begins with fifteen simple words: I have no control over this. The only thing I can control is my response.