Recently I’ve been hugely enjoying reading some young adult fiction. I’ve noticed that a universal theme is control. After all, children have very little control over their lives. But do adults have more control? Should we give up the illusion of control? Can we navigate so that we plan yet remain flexible. How do we find comfort with uncertainty yet keep our agency? Just a few unimportant topics before breakfast, as the Red Queen might say.
One book – Madeleine L’Engle’s And Both Were Young – really resonated with me. I related to this book because, like its main character, I was sent to boarding school. I was 12 and I hated it. I hated the school itself – and when I transferred I was much happier.
Adapting to an English boarding school was tough. It wasn’t just being away from my parents, it was the different culture. In particular there was a lot of teasing and I didn’t know how to handle it, so it became less good natured and more pointed. I was baffled.
My background didn’t have this sort of teasing. I have no siblings so there wan’t that rough and tumble at home. I think the culture of teasing is different in the UK from the US, so when I arrived I didn’t know what the teasing meant. I’d been at my previous school, along with most of my classmates, since kindergarten. Suddenly I was dropped into a situation where I was with a group of girls I didn’t know, whose language I couldn’t translate – although we all spoke English. It was a huge change.
I didn’t understand the culture and had to find comfort with uncertainty, while trying to become familiar with what it all meant. How I could navigate this new culture?
Being Determined to Have a Bad Time
I do think I came to the school with an open mind and heart. I’ve always been gregarious and approach new experiences from a place of optimism. Yet it was hard trying to find any comfort with the uncertainty of my new life. I felt on unstable ground.
We have so many things that are out of our control in our lives. As adults, we have a hard time recognizing that. How often do we go into situations with our arms crossed, determinedly knowing it’s going to be hideous.
This often happens with something related to work or family. Perhaps there’s a family member we don’t like but feel we have to visit. We roll our eyes and sigh and try to put it off. When, in the end, we arrive at the front door we are sure it’s going to be awful. Our arms are crossed. We think I don’t want to be here – but I have no choice.
I Have No Choice – comfort with uncertainty and agency
Now don’t get whiplash! I know I’ve just been talking about not having control and how we have to find comfort with uncertainty – but we always have a choice. I’m radically against the phrase I don’t have a choice. Your choices might not be great, but we can always make a considered decision rather than float along carried by the tide and bemoaning the situation.
Lets take that relative you don’t like. Joe is mean to you and his family. He says things that are snide and belittling. He runs roughshod over boundaries. In short, Joe is nasty and demanding. Unfortunately, he also complains bitterly that you don’t visit. After months of this sniping, you sigh and say – I don’t have a choice, I’ll just have to hold my nose for a few hours and visit Joe. Lets get it over with. This is not an unusual situation. So how do we re-frame it and why do we go anyway?
In fact, you do have a choice – you can just not visit. You can let Joe be as nasty as he likes. You can be cheerful about it and ignore it as interference, not worrying about any flack coming your way.
So lets dig deeper to see why you still choose to visit Joe. Obviously, you don’t want him to complain and moan about you. But is there more?
You know Joe will go on a rant to his family about you, because that’s what he’s like. He’s the type to go on multiple tears. Joe will sound off to off about how selfish you are and how that’s not how family behaves etc. Joe’s family will have to bear the brunt of your decision not to visit. You might not have to deal with his meanness, but the unpleasantness will be passed onto them. His family will pay the price if you don’t visit.
In fact, you realize your visit helps the rest of the family! This is why you do it -so you can give them some relief!
You’ve made an altruistic choice. It’s something to feel good about. Perhaps it even enables you to sail through the visit with some grace. Rather than feeling like I don’t have a choice you understand why you are making this visit and you feel good about it.
Control and Agency – owning our decisions
So often we are in a situation at the office or with family where we have to deal with circumstances and people we don’t like – and gaining comfort with uncertainty is hard! Sometimes it helps us navigate the situation and adapt. Other times we come to the conclusion that the situation has to change. That’s what happened at my boarding school. The girls at the school weren’t very nice. I was much happier after I moved to another boarding school. But the insights I gained and the lessons I learnt at the old boarding school really helped me in the environment of the new school.
When we take back agency, it often helps us to approach something we don’t want to do with a better frame of mind. Here’s the funny thing – we might not have control in our life, but we do have choice. When we own that choice we feel more anchored and better able to navigate and endure. In fact, we set ourselves up for smoother sailing and perhaps even do some that personal growth people are always waffling on about.