Control or Freedom



My virtual coffee-chat friend says, “I’m not in charge of the universe.”

As she and I can’t meet in person, we are having an old-fashioned phone call, not a Zoom. An outside-the-box rabbi and a brilliant, retired, Episcopal priest.

I continue the Sisyphean task of sorting papers on my desk as she continues: “To deeply know one is not in control is liberating, freeing.”

I uncap a Sharpie and scrawl “Freedom is the sublime knowledge that I’m not in charge of the universe.”

“Preacher,” I chide, “You’re a freak. The rest of us enjoy being in control, or at least pretending we are.”

Anxious Control

I’ve noticed—but need more data to confirm—that the more anxious I am the more likely I am to compulsively raise and lower the volume on my phone and the thermostat. And, the more likely I will be to micromanage my bride and children.

Of mice and men

  1. Put two sets of rats in identical cages
  2. Give one set levers that, when pressed, dispense food and water
  3. Give the other set food and water only when the other rats press the levers

Both get the same amount of food and water, but there is a big difference: one set has more control over their environment.

The result? The second group, the group without agency, evacuates (craps) haphazardly and performs more poorly in mazes.

Greater control of one’s environment—at least to these rats—leads to better digestion and cognition.

Let’s examine a second experiment—this one with human beings and the perception of control.

  1. Put one test subject in front of a set of levers shown to be attached to nothing
  2. Put a second subject in front of the same set of levers, but do not let the subject know the levers are attached to nothing
  3. Tell each subject that the levers, adjusted correctly, can dissipate the subsequent loud intermittent noises
  4. Be mocked by subject one, who knows the levers have no effect on the noise
  5. Play loud intermittent noises at the same volume and intervals for both subjects
  6. Ask each subject about their experience and give them a simple cognitive test

Both have the exact same set-up. The levers for both subjects are non-functional. However, one believes they have more control over their environment.

The result? The second subject, the one with perceived agency, finds the experiment to be less annoying and does better on cognitive tests

Control. Or Freedom.

Epictetus wrote:

Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle—some things are within your control, and some things are not.

We would not have selected much of what pains us about our current circumstances:

  • Covid-19
  • Corruption
  • Shootings
  • People who unmute themselves on Zoom and are unaware of their background noises
  • Racism

While we can act towards changing our outer circumstances, we must accept the things we cannot change.

Wayne Dyer put it this way:

You cannot always control what goes on outside, but you can always control what goes on inside.

In other words, while we do not have agency over all that happens (or has happened to us), we have agency over our reaction to it.

He is wrong.

We can’t always control what goes on inside.

Things happen that trigger us. For example, Emmett and Annie fight with each other. And, even when it is play fighting, my blood boils.

While I can’t keep them from fighting and I can’t keep my blood from boiling, I can leave the room.

So, it looks like we have two choices:

  1. Take refuge in the sublime knowledge that we are not in charge of the universe
  2. Use these levers to pretend you are


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