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The Dichotomy of Control
What it means for your relationship with the world
Do not worry about that which we cannot control, we all “know” the cliche, but what does this really mean? The concept sounds simple enough, but simple platitudes can often become dicey in practice. Understanding the Dichotomy of Control is crucial for you as an individual but also for your relationship with society.
What is the Dichotomy of Control?
The Dichotomy of Control (DOC) is the concept that there are some things within our direct control and some things outside of our control. For example, when we go outside, we can bring an umbrella with us in the event that it may rain, but we cannot control whether or not the rain actually falls.
The DOC has its origins in Stoic teachings from ancient Greece. On a voyage between Phoenicia and Peiraeus, Zeno of Citium’s ship sank along with all of its cargo. Suddenly, the once-wealthy trader was poor and stranded in Athens. Ultimately, while visiting a bookstore, he was introduced to the philosophy of Socrates and other great thinkers. The lessons of these philosophers and his own shipwreck dramatically changed the course of his life.
The events led Zeno to develop the principles that we now know as Stoicism.
When you actually stop and think about it, there is very little within your direct control. The overwhelming majority of events that you encounter and the challenges you face are not within your control at all. You have no choice as to who your parents are, where you were born, or even what happens to you tomorrow. For many, this is an unsettling thought.
Indeed, when I first read about the DOC, I scoffed at the notion. I imagine that my reaction is fairly typical. I thought, sure, I cannot control many things, but I can influence them, it’s not a dichotomy but a spectrum of influence. But the more I thought about it, I came to realize that my initial reaction was wrong. For those things that I thought I had “influence” over, if I broke them down into their fundamental action components, I realized that there was, in fact, a stark dichotomy. The ancients were right.
I cannot control whether or not I will get into a car accident tomorrow, but I can drive defensively and carefully. You might conclude that I was correct, that my driving habits can “influence” my probability of getting into a car accident. It might, but that doesn’t make the DOC any less dichotomous. I could drive extremely carefully and still get hit by a semi-truck driver who happens to have fallen asleep at the wheel.
The dichotomy is still there, whether one wants to accept it or not. The brilliance of the Dichotomy of Control is the freedom, the liberation, that it provides you. Once one accepts the notion that they are not in control of everything that happens to them, they then can focus their attention on that which they can control. This is crucial.
A common misconception is that Stoicism is purely the pursuit of “not caring.” This could not be any further from the truth. A Stoic who accepts the DOC cares a lot, a great deal in fact, but they have learned to focus their attention on the components of events that they can directly control. They are not wasting their time, energy, or mental energy on anything else.
A Changed Relationship
The DOC dramatically alters our relationship with society and humanity. As individuals, it forces us to take personal responsibility for that within our control. Instead of wasting our energy blaming society for bad things that happen to us, we can instead focus on improving ourselves and how we react. We can turn adversity into opportunity, we can recognize the good alongside the bad.
We can’t change the world but we can change how we react to it. Certainly, we can also do things that help make the world a better place. We can vote in elections, we can volunteer, and we can donate to the poor. But through the DOC, we do so with the recognition that we are but a very small part of humanity and thus our efforts are small, but never in vain.