Not in Control

I’m trying to plan a wedding in the middle of a global pandemic.

It’s going about as well as you might expect.

It’s overwhelming to try and make plans when everything is so uncertain. I have no idea what’s going to happen next, so how can I possibly make decisions about things that are happening a month or two or six in the future? I often feel paralyzed by indecision, helpless in the midst of my constant (and sometimes crippling) anxiety.

Decisions are hard in times like this. Some of you, like me, are planning weddings, and as you try to decide when and where and with how many people to celebrate your marriage, you’re hemmed in by restrictions you never would have imagined six months ago. Some of you are expecting babies and are facing a completely different set of choices than you would have dealt with a year ago. Some of you are trying to decide what to do about school for your children this year, and none of the options you’re faced with seem ideal for your family. And on top of all of that, in all these decisions, the circumstances are changing so rapidly it seems like as soon as we make a decision, everything changes again and we have to start from scratch.

The decisions are different, but the anxiety is the same: how can I possibly make a decision when everything might change in a few weeks or months anyway?

Our stress levels have never been higher. And yet, as I’ve been examining my own life over the past couple of months, I’ve come to a realization: my life hardly resembles the valley of hardship my anxiety is making it out to be.

Oh, a lot of my plans have fallen through. I’m a little more budget-conscious than I was before all of this, and I’ve had to cut my wedding down to less than a quarter of the original guest list. But I’m still eating regularly. I’m still living in a comfortable home, a home which people one hundred years ago (and in many parts of the world today) would consider luxurious. I still have a supportive and loving fiancé, and despite our wedding looking much different than what we had originally envisioned, I still get to marry him this fall and spend the rest of my life with him.

I realize there are many, many people who have suffered physically, financially, and emotionally during this upheaval. But today I’m speaking to the people like me—people who, despite not being plunged into poverty nor being in any serious danger, are dealing with a level of anxiety that is making this year one of the most challenging we’ve ever experienced.

So—why? If my life is, by all measurable standards, still pretty good, why am I so tense and on edge? And why are you?

It’s because life is uncertain, of course. I’m anxious and stressed because I can’t predict what’s coming next, because I can’t make plans and trust that they’ll come to pass.

Rational, isn’t it—to be anxious because life is unpredictable?

Well, it would be. Except—that’s the way life has always been.

My grandparents were my age during the Cold War. There were times during those years when nuclear war seemed imminent, when many people lived in fear that life as they knew it would come to a sudden end in one terrifying explosion.

My great-grandparents got married and started their family during World War Two. My great-grandfather was at sea in the Navy for the first few years of their marriage. He came home; many did not.

Their parents lived through the Great Depression, and the Spanish Flu Pandemic, and World War One. And so on, and so on, and so on.

Life has always been uncertain, and times have always been hard. 2020 is not an anomaly, nor are we suffering more than everyone who went before us. But most people in my generation and the one just before—particularly those of us who live in the developed world—have been extraordinarily blessed. We are, on average, more prosperous than almost any generation before us. We have medical science and a decent education and, even among those of us who are less fortunate than the average, a standard of living that our great-great-grandparents would have envied. We’ve seen tragedies, like 9/11, but most of us have never lived through war in our hometowns. We’ve been safer and healthier than most of our ancestors ever dreamed of being, and in the predictability of the world we’ve created in the years following the last worldwide crisis, we’ve grown accustomed to living lives that can be planned and scheduled—lives we can control.

And now, all of a sudden, we’ve had to face the reality that was there all along, a reality that we, sheltered as we have been by our relative privilege, have never had to face until now: we are not in control. And that lack of control terrifies us.

We are not accustomed to facing our own frailty, our own inability to control the circumstances of our lives. We’re encountering a reality that most previous generations have accepted without fanfare—yet instead of accepting our circumstances and adapting to them, many of us are clinging to the expectations we had for our lives before all of this happened. We’re scrambling to find a way to make those plans work, somehow—but most of the time, they just won’t, and the harder we try to execute a pre-pandemic vision in mid-pandemic circumstances, the more frustrated and anxious we become.

Let me put it bluntly: a major reason why our anxiety levels are so high right now is because we think we should be able to control our lives—and we’re only just now realizing we can’t.

I’m not saying we’re wrong to feel a little anxious, and I’m certainly not saying we shouldn’t acknowledge and be honest about how difficult this has been, even for those of us who are relatively fortunate. It’s okay to admit that being thrown out of our regular routines is stressful. It’s okay if uncertain circumstances make us feel—well—unsure.

But feeling unsure is one thing; being paralyzed by my own anxiety and indecision is another. And the more I think about how uncertain life has always been throughout the whole of human history, the more I begin to think that, maybe, the reason why I am so anxious about my own uncertainties today is not because they are exceptionally difficult—it is because I expect my circumstances to be within my control.

Am I frustrated because I “have to” have a small backyard wedding with only our families in attendance? No; I’m frustrated because my plan was a church wedding with 250 people—and I’ve grown to expect that when I make a plan, it should happen. The backyard wedding is hardly a tragedy—it will be a lovely, intimate occasion. I’ll still have a white dress and flowers and a happily-ever-after with the love of my life. But I’ve grown so used to being in control of my life that I think that’s just the way life works—in spite of the fact that, for most of human history, it hasn’t worked like that at all. And as a result, when my plans are changed without my having any say about it, I feel anxious and discontent—even though, in the grand scheme of things, I’ve lost very little.

So here’s my question: what if I stopped assuming that having my plans fall through will inevitably “ruin” my happiness? What if I expected life to be unexpected? And, most importantly—what would happen if I knew that my life was not within my control, and just accepted it?

What if you accepted it, too?

I think, perhaps, we would not feel quite so anxious. I think we’d be able to stop trying so hard so force our 2020 lives into what we expected them to be back in January. I think we’d begin to learn that we are more resilient than we’ve been giving ourselves credit for—that we, and our children, and our happiness, do not require ideal circumstances to flourish.

Perhaps we would realize that life has always been hard—and then we’d realize that it has also always been beautiful. There have always been tears and heartaches, disappointments and griefs—but there has always been joy and laughter and celebration and love. And when we stop trying to control what was never within our power to begin with, maybe we can just be still long enough to see that being happy was never about being in control—that being content was not so much about resigning ourselves to unpleasant circumstances as choosing to find joy in the unexpected, no matter how much of a challenge it seemed at first.

Perhaps, if I understood that I don’t have the “right” to be in control, I would stop sacrificing my sleep and my sanity in pursuit of an expectation that doesn’t fit in my reality.

Perhaps, if I released my grasp on a control that was never mine to begin with, I would find my hands empty to receive the happiness I had overlooked because it didn’t look the way I’d planned.

Is there a situation in your life you’ve realized you can’t control? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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