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Letting go of our need for control frees us

"If you want to make God laugh, just tell Him your plans." This old Jewish proverb is
especially familiar to people in recovery from addiction, but everyone can glean some
meaning from these time-tested words. They serve as a gentle reminder that most of what happens in our life and in the lives of others is beyond our control.

"Control is usually a fantasy, and there is very little of it available," said John Mac Dougall, manager of Spiritual Guidance at Hazelden in Center City, Minn. Parents, for instance, might think they can control their children by controlling their children's environment, he said. "Yet, if you have several children, can you make them grow up the same? Can you make all your employees behave the same way by issuing the same rules at the office?"

Even agencies of social control don't really have control, explained Mac Dougall. Although police can exert influence by beefing up a police department or having more visibility in a high-crime area, they can't control whether or not a crime will take place.

Although we often confuse influence and control, they are two distinct things. For example, we can influence our health by exercising, not smoking, eating balanced meals, and getting an annual physical, but we cannot control our health or longevity. Even the healthy and virtuous are susceptible to disease and accidents.

We can guide and we can nag others, but we cannot script their lives or control how they will act or react. We can plot and plan our own lives, yet the unexpected happens. We can buckle our own and our children's seat belts, and drive as carefully as we can, but we have no control over the careless driver who veers into our lane and smashes into our car.

The issue of control is at the heart of addiction and recovery. For example, non-alcoholics can have a drink or two and stop without difficulty, said Mac Dougall. Alcoholics, however, experience a radical loss of control when they have alcohol. "They drink well," he said. "What they don't do well is quit."

Letting go of our need to control frees us to appreciate and remain open to the wonderful surprises life often hands us. We can become more spontaneous and accepting. Remember that the Chinese character for crisis also means opportunity. The rain that canceled our perfectly planned picnic outing provides a chance to snuggle in and read the book we've been meaning to get to. A difficult situation at work that escalated beyond our control affords us the chance to bond with a coworker.

Understanding the myth of control can also help us when we are in leadership roles, said Mac Dougall. "AA's Tradition Two says that our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.' If you see a leadership role as service, you can have a lot of influence because you aren't trying to control anyone," said Mac Dougall. "Think about your heroes. Did they become your heroes by controlling or by influencing and serving?"

"A struggle for mastery and control only increases stress, not success," writes Mac Dougall in the Clinician's Guide to Spirituality (Hazelden, 2001), a book he coauthored with Dr. Bowen White. " 'Let go and let God' is a healthier approach to life than 'I am the master of my fate and the captain of my soul.' "

"Let go and let God," is a slogan that people in Twelve Step recovery groups often quote. Others might say, "Trust the universe." A writer who is experiencing writers' block might be told by another writer to "Trust the process."

No matter how it is put, these various philosophies urge us to do the same thing: realize that the harder we try to control a behavior, a person, or a creative endeavor, the less likely we are to succeed. The struggle to control is usually a futile exercise that can drive each of us and those around us a little crazy.

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation is a force of healing and hope for individuals, families and communities affected by addiction to alcohol and other drugs. As the nation's leading nonprofit provider of comprehensive inpatient and outpatient treatment for adults and youth, the Foundation has 17 locations nationwide and collaborates with an expansive network throughout health care. With a legacy that began in 1949 and includes the 1982 founding of the Betty Ford Center, the Foundation today also encompasses a graduate school of addiction studies, a publishing division, an addiction research center, recovery advocacy and thought leadership, professional and medical education programs, school-based prevention resources and a specialized program for children who grow up in families with addiction.

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