We are powerless over what happens in our lives and in the world around us. We have no control over the thoughts and actions of others. Those two statements make me very uncomfortable. But I hear them again and again in different ways.
The 12 steps of AA begin with admitting I am powerless and need a Higher Power to restore me. The Beatitudes tell us the poor, meek and humble are truly blessed. This wisdom is not of this world and even as a person of faith — I struggle with these truths.
However, one thing I have learned in half a century of life on earth is that life is unpredictable no matter how well we plan. Disasters and economic hardships happen to all. People get sick and die and no one is exempt from suffering.
As much as we think we can, we can’t control much. Lest we throw up our hands and wonder why we even try or take an attitude of pessimism- there is hope and you don’t necessarily need to have a relationship with God to find it.
We may not be able to control what happens to us and around us — but we can control our response.
It’s a little like the glass half empty or full analogy but even deeper. The other day I read this quote in a meditation book which expanded this principle:
“Thought gives direction to the heart and determines action- which is why it is so important…It is not things that come to us from the outside of us that do us harm but our interior reaction, starting with our thoughts….(Father Jacques Philippe, Magnificat Magazine, Feb. 12, 2020).
Allow me to give an example. For the past few weeks, one of the scars on my daughter’s head has been opening up. This one sits behind her ear where the tubing from her shunt was located prior to the last brain surgery. The skin on her head is thin and is prone to breakdown because of all the surgeries.
The surgeons think it may be a matter of something from the inside (likely a stitch or possibly necrotic bone) may be trying to push out and causing the wound to reopen. There is always a concern for a staph infection, but right now it looks okay except for the way it opens and closes. For now, we’ve been watching the area and covering it with sterile strips to cut down on the friction from Johanna’s glasses.
The arm of her glasses exactly hits the spot. A few weeks ago, the surgeons recommended adjusting her glasses and trying to find some other type of padding to reduce the impact of friction on the wound.
Recently, I took Johanna to the eyewear shop where we purchased her glasses. It’s a bit of a drive from our home, but they specialize in serving people with vision problems related to brain injuries, so it’s worth the trip.
Unfortunately, the person who normally helps us was unavailable and we had someone new. The moment we walked into the shop, I sensed the clerk was uncomfortable. We can seem like a parade; my daughter uses a walker with her service dog at her side and that day we had an aide with us too. We move as a team — but sometimes it’s not so smooth and that’s okay.
However, this time the clerk was clearly annoyed. Her body language and her eye rolls gave away her thoughts before she uttered a word. When I explained what we were looking for by recommendation of the doctor, she rolled her eyes some more and answered with a patronizing tone. The clerk bent the arm of the glasses a little and handed them back to us with an annoyed look suggesting that if we needed something more we might look at a local craft store for help.
To be honest, I was a little stunned. I even glanced at Jo’s aide to see if I was misunderstanding the clerk. The look on the aide’s face confirmed my thoughts. Thinking that at least the glasses adjustment would help, for now, I decided to leave.
In retrospect, I probably should have been more insistent that we have the other clerk help us, but it was a small place and we would have had to wait even longer and Jo was tired and needed to go home.
But that day taught me a thing or two about controlling my thoughts to influence my actions. Whatever negative thoughts that were going on in the clerk’s mind and heart were apparent in her facial expressions, evident in her tone and in the disrespect with which she treated us. She didn’t have to say a word. That she was annoyed to have to serve my daughter was obvious to us.
I couldn’t control the clerk’s behavior, even if I demanded to see a manager. (I don’t think there was one there anyway.) The vibe was all around. The only thing I could control was my response.
Trust me, I had lots of negative thoughts running around in my mind and how I wanted to blast this woman who treated my daughter with disrespect. But I made a decision to change the outcome by controlling my thoughts to support my actions and focus on making sure Jo’s needs were addressed. By doing so, we got the frames adjusted and we took our long drive home in peace. Later, when I had time to think, I lodged a formal complaint — in a manner that was both kind and just.
Even though I think it’s possible to practice positive thinking and inform one’s heart and actions with thoughts of goodwill, I still choose to begin each day surrendering my life and my loved ones to God. This practice keeps me sane in this unpredictable life we live and restores a semblance of peace when I struggle with worry.
There is plenty in my life that is beyond my control, but by the grace of God, I can control my response and restore peace to my soul.
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