Thoughts on Control
“I’ve learned that when you try to control everything, you enjoy nothing.”
Several years ago when I was a young man and in the U.S. Air Force, I was serving on a joint services task force in Alaska. We were on a little island called Annette Island off the coast of Ketchikan, Alaska and were tasked with building a road across a mountainous, deciduous rain forest. Not an easy task. One particular day, I was tasked with moving equipment from one side of the island to the other and found myself driving a “deuce and a half” dump truck. This truck was six wheel drive and was about the only thing that could successfully make it over the roughly carved mountain road to the other side of the island. Anyone that has ever driven one of these dump trucks can tell you, they are not fancy. No air conditioning, no power steering, no automatic transmission, and a seat that was about as comfortable as a cheap lawn chair. So, with my keys in hand, I went and crawled into this truck and fired it up. The diesel engine growled to life and the turbo spooled as I let out on the clutch and gave it some gas. Chugging along in fourth gear, I made it to the top of the mountain. I only had about 5 miles to go down the other side of the mountain to get to the vehicle bay and the base camp. In order to give the brakes a rest, I downshifted to second gear to let the engine carry me slowly down the mountain. Then something very unsettling happened. When I let the clutch out, there was a tremendous bang and then there was the sound of metal grinding and hammering against metal and I suddenly had no engine control to help me slow down this 20,000 pound truck. Rapidly coasting down the mountain, I sparingly applied the brakes to keep them from overheating. At one point, I found myself careening down this mountain road at about 40 miles an hour. Now, I know that doesn’t sound too fast to most people, but this mountain was incredibly steep with 200 foot drop offs at its edge. I was trying to maintain control for all I was worth, while at the same time feeling extraordinarily out of control. After what felt like an hour barreling down this mountain, I finally reached the bottom safely. Unbeknownst to me, the drive shaft of the truck had sheared off when I down shifted at the top of the mountain and taken away the power of the engine to the wheels. I was fortunate that day, but managed to make it down safely.
I think sometimes life mirrors that experience. We want control. We think we have control, and then we have one moment where the shit hits the fan in life and we are suddenly reminded how little control we actually have. I had no control over the drive shaft of my truck shearing off at the top of a mountain just like we often don’t have control over many of the sudden and catastrophic things that happen in our lives. We have a car wreck or we come home to find our spouse or partner has moved out and left us; these things leave us reeling and questioning what we actually do have control over. In response to this, I would like to say: It is okay to feel powerless sometimes. It is just fine to feel helpless. You cannot control everything. Ultimately, in life, we cannot control much of what happens to us. We can plan, study, save, and work hard, but we can’t always prevent something bad from happing to us. We can, however, control how we response to the difficult situations that life throws our way. As we wrap up this discussion, I will conclude it with what is perhaps the best description of the attitude we should have when dealing with things that are beyond our control in the wise words of Reinhold Niehbur:
“God grant me the Serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the Wisdom to know the difference.”