How Can I Get More Control of My Life?
And Why Is This the Wrong Question? Part 2
by Darla Isackson
The one-year anniversary of 9/11 is upon us. A nation shaken to the core by the senseless tragedy of that day has been sobered and changed. The physical debris has been cleared away, and each of us has chosen whether to be left with emotional and spiritual debris or with a sacred memorial.
We had no control over that situation, and the common but misguided question “How can I get more control of my life?” seemed irrelevant for awhile. Men and women of faith somehow knew that turning to God, who alone can bring great good even from great evil, was our only hope. As the shattering extent of the loss became evident, few people did not turn upward, pleading to God for comfort, for safety for themselves and family members, for understanding. Many people, formerly indifferent, rediscovered compassion, faith in God, and commitment to service and family. Most of us recognized our need to get on with our most important priorities, to love better and to use each day of our fragile, unpredictable lives to move ahead with things no one else can do.
We recognized that even though we had no control over the outward actions of others, we could choose our inner response to those actions. We could use our losses as an impetus to reach upward to God, improve our lives, and strengthen our family bonds.
And Then May We Stand Still
In D&C 123:17 we read: “Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed.” We have seen so much cheerful service in this last year–people doing all things that lie in their power to lesson the blows dealt on that deadly day. And we have seen the arm of God revealed in the reuniting of a nation and the reinstating of kindness and true heroism and faith as national values.
This scripture has great application to our parenting challenges as well. First, “cheerfully do all things that lie in our power.” What things lie in our power and what things don’t? Once we have done all in our power, we can “stand still, with the utmost assurance,” with great faith that the Lord God will do his work “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” in the lives of our children. But do we? Do we evidence in our countenances the “perfect brightness of hope” in regard to the salvation of God with faith that his arm will be revealed in the lives of our children, especially our errant children?
The old AA Serenity Prayer is so wise: “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.” Colleen Harrison, author of He Did Deliver Me from Bondage, said the scripture quoted above, D&C 123:17, is the gospel equivalent of the Serenity Prayer. She said this was the scripture that finally answered for her the question, ‘But, Lord, when do I know whether I’ve done enough, when I’ve done all things in my power?’ The answer: When you cannot do it (whatever ‘it’ is) cheerfully, that’s your signal to be still and let go and let Me take over.’
“That message harmonizes well with His counsel in Moroni 7:3–‘Wherefore, I would speak unto you that are of the church, that are the peaceable followers of Christ, and that have obtained a sufficient hope by which ye can enter into the rest of the Lord, from this time henceforth until ye shall rest with him in heaven.’ (emphasis mine). His counsel to me through these verses is: When you cannot find peace or cheerfulness, you are taking too much on yourself. You are trying to ‘run faster than you are able’ [or infringing on someone else’s agency?] Be still and know that all things will happen in due time, according to My will and pleasure. Trust that you are part of my orchestration and timing and enter into the rest found in my living testimony and in the power of my atonement. Be perfected in Me, or in other words in My Spirit. Be of good cheer. Easy does it. I will complete the good work I have started in you.'”
Could this idea be another key to the whole issue of agency and control? Could we gauge our rightness in this matter by our ability to be cheerful? Did anyone ever nag, coerce, or exert unrighteous dominion with a cheerful heart? Did any parent step over the boundaries of agency and attempt to control and still maintain a peaceful and cheerful spirit? Surely when we cannot find peace or cheerfulness in our present parenting approach, we are taking too much on ourselves. That is our signal to back off, to be still, let go, turn upwards to God, and trust our children to His constant and loving care. We can stand still with the utmost assurance when we have done all that lies in our power. We may writhe in torment and push and struggle and cry out in pain when we are trying to do too much, when we are not yielding to the plan of agency, the perfect timetable of God, the will of God. And in our over-exertion, we, who may be trying to force our children to follow the light, may lose the light.
Jacob said, “Behold, my beloved brethren, I will unfold this mystery unto you; if I do not, by any means, get shaken from my firmness in the Spirit, and stumble because of my over anxiety for you.” (Jacob 4:18, emphasis mine.) I suspect I have frequently been “shaken from my firmness in the Spirit,” and have stumbled because of my over-anxiety for my children, my unwillingness to consider it enough to do all things that lie in my power, in my stewardship.
To Draw Them to the Light, We Must Be Standing in the Light
One day when the sadness of year after year of dealing with an errant son was weighing heavily on me, I sat down to do some writing therapy–and a vital insight was suddenly revealed to me. I could not invite my son to share the light when I was sitting in the dark! No wonder I felt so utterly ineffective with my son. I wanted to give him faith, yet I was courting despair. I wanted to give him purpose in life, yet I was all mixed up about the purpose of my life–feeling that if I couldn’t push my philosophy of life onto him, my purpose was thwarted. I wanted him to experience the joy of belief in the Savior and his Infinite Atonement, yet I was not feeling the joy of it myself. Why would he want what I had? Was he seeing a perfect brightness of hope or just my grief? I wanted to give him a sense of worth and self-confidence, yet I had allowed my sense of worth and confidence to be shattered by his choices and the choices of other family members who had turned away from my “help.” No wonder he was avoiding me. A person with an empty cup doesn’t run to a dry well. From a dark and dreary place I was trying to offer him gifts of light. That never works.
Those insights were very motivating. I believed in Christ with all my heart, so why was I still trying control everything? Why wasn’t I letting Him heal my heart? Why wasn’t I feeling His love and forgiveness and the assurance that He was mindful of my son and would reach out to him? Why wasn’t I feeling the joy of living gospel principles so that my light could shine? I turned to the Lord and the scriptures with a far clearer vision, and over time rediscovered the light and joy I had somehow lost along the way.
So many of my answers came through clarifying my own stewardship. For instance, I came to understand that it was my job to offer, it was my children’s job how they chose to respond. If they didn’t respond well, I could work on my ability to offer in a more spiritually edifying way, but still, how they responded was outside my area of righteous control.
Partial, Total, or No Control?
The more clearly I have been able to define my own stewardship, saying “What part is mine? What part is yours?” the more I have become convinced of the wisdom of using my time and energy to reach upward for strength to “clean up my own act.” My outward efforts to control, fix, manipulate, dictate, try to control my children in any kind of coercive or judgmental or critical way, have always been counter-productive.
My friend Patricia reminded me of a little exercise she often does to clarify her stewardship. When she is faced with a problem she sits down and analyzes whether she has total, partial, or no control. Patricia and I were discussing the limitations we face even in the areas that–on paper–we should have “total control” over–our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. Only Jesus had “total” control of his own thoughts, feelings, and actions, and Jesus said, “I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.” (John 5:30) If even the perfect Son of God said he could of his own self do nothing–how much more should we realize that we need to recognize our own powerlessness, seek the will of the Father, and rely on His Spirit. In Moroni 7:33 Jesus explains the marvelous result of doing that: “And Christ hath said: If ye will have faith in me ye shall have power to do whatsoever thing is expedient in me.” So our control–even of ourselves–is dependent on our faith and discernment of what is expedient to the Lord–what is His will. The right question, then, is not “How can I, of myself, have total control of myself?” but “How can I get in tune with the Lord’s will and have the Lord’s help in mastering myself and helping my family progress?”
With the challenges we face in living in a world torn by war and violence, the total, partial, no control exercise might look like this:
Problem: I keep focusing on the frightening and terrible world conditions and feeling miserable that I can’t protect my family from all this evil.
Total control: I can use my agency to choose a spiritual focus. I can choose to use my energies to improve what I can improve: myself and my immediate environment.
Problem: I am filled with fear and worry about terrorism, famine, war, pestilence, failing economy and how all that is going to affect the well-being of my family.
Partial control: I can prepare physically and spiritually. I can add to my food storage, improve my 72-hour kit. “If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear.” (D&C 38: 30) I can improve my spiritual strength through daily scripture study and prayer. By praying more frequently I can change more and more of my fear to faith.
Problem: Evil in the world resulting in violence and war
No control of the situation, but with the Lord’s help I can learn to control my response to it.
Now let’s look at some parenting examples.
Problem: I keep losing my temper.
Total control: It is not the child’s behavior, but my own weakness that causes me to lose my temper. By turning to the Lord and asking for the Spirit, I can regain my peace and balance.
Problem: My kids are eating too much junk food
Partial control: I buy the groceries and fix the meals. I can control that, but not what part of the meal they choose to eat, what they buy on their own, or what they eat when they are elsewhere.
Problem: Johnny repeatedly refuses to go to sleep after “lights out.”
No control. Regardless of the age of the children, I can’t make them sleep. I can allow natural consequences to teach them, and restrict other areas of the house they may be at night, but ultimately each individual is in charge of when he sleeps.
The Wisdom to Know the Difference
Some parents have found ways to reinforce their decision to let go of things they cannot control. One mother uses the “bag it” technique. She writes her list, puts the list in a bag, places the bag on the top shelf of a closet, and closes the closet door–symbolizing closing her mind on the things she can’t do anything about. One father took his list and buried it deep in the ground. Another burned the list, another put it in a helium balloon and watched while it floated out of sight, mentally giving all those problems up to the Lord. Turning upward, giving up the very idea of control of the uncontrollable to the merciful and all-knowing hands of the Lord can restore our peace and our sanity.
In my birthday story in Part One, I was reaching outward, not upward. I was trying to get personal validation by being in control of the situation, putting on a terrific party, and looking good. When Dave thwarted my misguided efforts, I lost control, even of myself. It has taken me years to grow into the understanding that my goal is not to be “in control of myself, the situation, or others”–but to yield to the Father’s will, to accept his plan, to safeguard agency, and to rejoice over the merciful atonement that makes up for all our weakness.
Although I still don’t have all the answers, I thank the Lord that I have begun to ask the right questions.
2002 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.