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What Can You Do When Things Are Beyond Your Control?

Updated: Mar 3

Ask yourself a mindful question

Photo by Karla Car on Unsplash

The country and western singer, actor and pork sausage entrepreneur Jimmy Dean once quipped:

I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.

A more ordinary way of saying this is there are some things you can change and some things you can’t. And you can bet your warm winter socks it’s important to know the difference!

Imagine seeing a sleek yacht in Fremantle Harbour, its bow pointing to Rottnest Island, 11 nautical miles away. Although a brisk wind is playing with your hair and turning the Indian Ocean choppy, this yacht’s mainsail is flapping disconsolately against the mast and the jib is limp. You spy a man in sailing whites standing in the stern, holding the tiller and shaking a fist at the sky. He seems to be remonstrating with the wind.

His voice carries to you over the water: ‘Stop coming from the west, you stupid wind! I need you to blow from the east! The east! Wheel about now!’

What would be your advice to him?

Would you tell him to shout louder and wave his fist faster? Would you suggest he use more polite language? Or would you advise him to do what sailors call tacking? This involves working with the direction of the wind to get where you want to go. When tacking, the yacht doesn’t go in a straight line to its destination. It zig-zags across the water. But it still gets there.

You can’t change the direction of the wind. You can’t change the earth’s spin. You can’t change the laws of mathematics. You can’t change this moment.

You can only change what’s under your control.

What’s under that thwarted sailor’s control? Two things: his thoughts, and what he’s doing. Instead of being angry with the wind he can accept the direction it’s coming from. Then he can turn his attention to the tiller and the angle of the mainsail. If he adjusts these skillfully, he’ll be anchoring at Rottnest in time for lunch despite the contrary wind.

Photo by Ricardo Jimenez on Unsplash

Years ago, before online airport check-in, mobile phones and suitcases with wheels had been invented, I missed a plane.

Young, inexperienced and alone in Athens with a now invalid ticket and no credit card, I realised things weren't going my way. I also suspected that the jet soaring happily overhead on its way to Australia contained an empty seat I should've been sitting in, but knew that shouting or waving a fist at it wasn't going to bring it back.

In that moment, standing there stranded, friendless and a bit frightened, I asked myself a question:

What can I do?

Initially, nothing came to mind except to sit on my suitcase and cry. But my father had always said crying would get me nowhere, so I explored the question further and soon found there was one sensible thing I could do: ask for help.

When I focused on what I could do, things started to improve. I soon found a bed for the night at a cheap B&B and was stuffing myself with authentic moussaka at an outdoor cafe courtesy of the handsome young Greek sitting opposite me. At that moment I was almost glad I'd missed the plane!

Ask yourself a mindful question

When days get difficult and things aren’t going your way, take a mindful moment to ask yourself a mindful question:

What is under my control?

You can change your thoughts and you can change what you’re doing. These two things are always under your control.

So when the winds of life seem to be blowing you off-course, follow the example of seasoned sailors. Accept what can’t be changed (the direction of the wind) and modify what can be changed (your thoughts and actions).

Zig-zag to your destination.

Wishing you all the best as you sail through life.

With love, Marlane

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