News flash if you’ve been living in a cave: we’re coming up on our quadrennial presidential election. It’s a big deal because the presidency is THE most powerful office of THE most powerful nation in the world. Next January, our newly elected president will be sworn in, celebrate at inaugural balls and then, early the next morning, sit down at her or his desk in the oval office to begin fulfilling all the promises made on the campaign trail from their new position of power.
The illusion of great power may hold sway for a brief spell of time, but it will soon crash upon the sharp rocks of political reality as our new president discovers that Congress, the Supreme Court, the Pentagon and other governmental agencies have agendas and wills or their own – not to mention the formidable power of multi-national corporations and their lobbyists. Then there is the press, opinion polls, foreign governments and the utterly unexpected to contend with.
All of which is to say that our new president will probably spend less time exercising power and more time despairing at the actual lack of it. Even the most powerful people in history – the monarchs, tyrants and dictators – have had to face the frustrating fact that whatever control they may seem to have is, at best, a temporary arrangement and more often than not, illusory. The universe doesn’t allow anyone – even the most fearsome, powerful tyrant – to play God for long.
Fortunately, our lives are simpler, less susceptible to the supreme frustrations of supreme leaders – we aren’t responsible for ruling and controlling nations and empires – just keeping our own lives in order and managing our own affairs.
Years ago, as I began my life in ministry, got married and had a son, I sought to create some order in my own particular realms of my personal and professional life – all for good reasons. After all, isn’t it good have an idea vision of how you’d like things to be, get all your “ducks lined up in a row,” and then get going on this? So I did just that.
Naturally, when you put forth such effort you expect certain outcomes – viz., that the order of things you have envisioned and worked for will come to pass. And sometimes it sort of did, and that was gratifying. But oftentimes, it didn’t happen. And then I got frustrated by this and tried harder. And again and again, I would try. When this failed to get the results to which I felt I was entitled I chose – yes, it is a choice – to feel embittered and/ or disempowered and discouraged by my lack of control over things. Seeing no alternative I became a fearsome bully, scared the crap out of everyone around me and then everyone and everything fell into place. Actually, no such thing happened, except in my imagination. Then I let that go of such crazy thinking and decided to listen to wise counsel.
Fortunately, I tend to keep good company – that is, expose myself to positive influences from the past and in the present. As the Greek stoic Epictetus put it: “the key is to keep company with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best”. (You should make friends with HIM – he’s got wisdom to share). Sage counsel came to me from several sources – including him – reminding me that – as perversely gratifying as it can be to nurture one’s grievances and sense of self-righteousness – you only harm yourself when you become attached to toxic emotions and allow them to take up permanent residence in your heart and mind.
Then, too, my simple, far from perfect but persistent meditation practice helped create enough mental space to become somewhat detached so I could let go and back out of this emotional cul-de-sac I had driven myself into. I’m not talking about an overnight change – and I am still on this journey and need to turn around from time to time – but I did come to recognize, and then accept one of the key realizations of my life: I can’t control other people.
An ideal place to learn such a lesson is a Unitarian Universalist congregation. A corollary realization that helped me accept this truth is that it’s actually a great thing I can’t control other people. Other people are not chess pieces in my personal game of life. Other folks have their ideas and opinions – usually boneheaded, cockamamie ones, but …what can you do? Actually, I’m kidding – mostly. That’s just what I do – so don’t try to stop or control me. When we try to control each other we unwittingly subvert our 5th UU principle which proclaims that .”we covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” This is in recognition of our need to discuss, debate, discern decide together. We share power.
It requires a certain level of spiritual humility to be part of a democratic religious community – no one gets to dictate or demand and disempower others. Whatever power any of us might have – minister, board chair, staff – is granted by the members of the congregation.
Once you come to realize that you cannot and should not control others your level of frustration, anxiety and anger dissipate. Once again, Epictetus proved right:. “Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.” I had to laugh at my misguided efforts to accomplish what lies beyond the power of presidents and potentates. Epictetus once again: “those who laugh at themselves never run out of things to laugh at.” So true.
The dawning realization that we cannot control others can, at first, feel very disempowering. It begs the question: what control DO you have, CAN have? Who IS in control? I found the answer in the Bhagavad Gita. Before I share the insight I gleaned from that ancient Hindu source I should note that the original reason I became a Unitarian Universalist as a young man was simple: I knew that no one would try to control where I turned for spiritual insight – that I wouldn’t have to contend with some UU religious authority who would claim to know what’s best for me. The church I grew up in would have been (and still would be) appalled that I would turn to any sacred text besides the bible. Having such religious freedom was and is vital to me because I have long been drawn to eastern religious sources as well as western ones. In truth I need all the spiritual friends and sources I can get.
So there I was reading a biography of Gandhi wherein he noted the great value of the Bhagavad Gita, which counseled him “therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme.” My translation: “do your best but don’t be attached to results.”
The typical counterargument to this is that people need motivation to do things and asking that we not be attached to results cuts us off from our primary reason for doing things – getting results! Yet is that really our primary motivation – to get the results we personally envision? When I reflect on this I realize that my highest motivation is not to serve my own ego needs but to serve the greater whole by performing my duty as best I can. I have some control over that – doing my best. I don’t have control over others, yet when you do your best others are inspired to recognize what is best and also serve the greater good. Thus can we exercise power with, not over. Thus, it follows that we can positively (and yes, negatively) influence one another. We can’t control one another and it’s spiritually foolish to expend your precious life’s energies trying. You will fail.
So what does success look like? What measuring stick can you use for that? Does it look like what you think it should look like? It may well be that some seed you plant today will bear fruits that you’ll never even know about. Seems to me that success is not measured by external standards but in doing your best and knowing in your heart that that is what you offered the world. The consequences of your actions may not – probably will not – play out as you intend, but grounding yourself daily by fulfilling the unique duties that lie before you will bring a good measure of peace and a sense of fulfillment.
Beyond that, you can trust that, eventually, all will be well? Or not. For me, this is this key spiritual question: do you trust life or not? It’s not a question that is easily answered and there may be some wavering from day to day.
Yet each day I do begin with my own personal inaugural address to the universe. Today, I will strive to fulfill my calling to life – to do my best in this, and not be attached to the results. What more can you do? What more can be asked?