When we drive we feel like we are in control. After a few years it feels perfectly normal to direct a ton or so of metal and plastic at 65 miles an hour past other hunks of hurtling kinetic energy directed by a faceless strangers who may or may not be awake, competent, sober or even sane.
We lose track of how crazy dangerous this is, in part because we have our hands on the steering wheel, so we have agency in the situation, and because nothing bad happens most of the time.
As a passenger, on the other hand, it can be very scary because we feel helpless. I’ve noticed that, when I’m a passenger, I can get completely freaked out if I look around at all the cars around me. I was recently driving someone to the airport and she was constantly getting frightened by cars that were merging into the lane next to us or scared that I wasn’t going to stop. If this is not a familiar feeling for you, dear reader, I invite you to give this a try next time you’re a passenger. Focus on the other cars around your car, especially the ones that are nearby and moving toward you, either perpendicularly at a stoplight or stop sign, or merging next to you or even going in the opposite direction. I think you’ll notice that your body will react with terror as the cars come close.
This illustrates a number of interesting things including how powerful our mutual, cultural understandings are and how we unconsciously rely on the consideration and sanity of millions of strangers every day. What I want to focus on in this post is how identifying and focusing on things we can’t control can paralyze us with fear.
Most of my friends are more focused on the actions of the current president more than they ever have before with any other former president. They are frightened and angered by his narcissism and capriciousness. What is he going to do next? Is he going to start a nuclear war or replace the government?
But this is like focusing on the cars coming the other way on the street and imagining that every single one of them is being driven by a madman who is contemplating swerving across the yellow line just to see what a head-on collision would feel like. Doing that will cause you to feel fear and anxiety that you can’t do anything about except maybe stop driving and get out of the car.
Don’t get me wrong, please. It’s very important to pay attention to the news and what the government is doing. There’s also nothing wrong with paying attention to the road when you’re in the passenger seat. I once saved my own life by looking up from my Mad Magazine to notice that, while my mother was looking in her purse for toll money, she was headed for a collision with the stopped cars in line ahead of us. At the same time, it’s unhealthy to dwell on things you can’t control, especially news stories.
Let me give you the ultimate bad news, just to get it over with. You and everyone you know is going to die and when that happens it will probably be unexpected and too soon. You have no control over that.
In fact, the amount of potentially life-threatening stuff that is out of your control dwarfs the small number of things you can control. If you focus on the stuff you can’t control you will live in a state of high anxiety and never be able to effectively manage what you can control.
Reinhold Niebuhr originally wrote his Serenity Prayer with this he mind.
“Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”Reinhold Niebuhr
Of course, I heard this pithier rewrite first:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.”Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous
I love the serenity prayer in both its forms because in just one sentence it gives a whole guide to how to live life. It also reads to me like a very deep and funny joke, especially in the AA version. Set up, set up, punchline. It really takes insight and wisdom to tell the difference between what’s in your control and what’s not and, to me, that’s kinda hilarious
It’s very interesting that Niebuhr leads with courage and AA leads with serenity and, depending on the situation, one may need to focus on doing what can be done or accepting what can’t be changed.
In my humble (sorta) opinion, most people (including me) torture themselves focusing on things they can’t change. One of the big things you can’t change is other people and, gosh darn it, those things are everywhere and they keep churning them out! We all spend most of our time wishing everyone else would just do what we want them to do. It’s crazy and crazy making.
Accepting what you can’t change and recognizing how much of the world that is actually empowering. Imagine the extra time you have in your life if you spend less time thinking about how wrong your colleague or your mother or your boss or POTUS is.
Take the wheel. Control the direction of your vehicle. Accept that those other drivers are going to do what they are going to do and drive defensively.
But don’t let the fear of what you don’t control make you stop driving.