Ellen Langer

By accepting our shortcomings, we deny our strengths ·

|

Many people advise us to change the things we can change, don’t try to change the things we can not change and know the difference between the two. Questioning the wisdom of this may upset many people, but still, I wonder if this is really good advice.

My doubt rests on the lack of distinction drawn between the concepts uncontrollable and indeterminate. To say that something is uncontrollable, means that we know that it can not be controlled. This is something we can not know. All we can know is that “it” has not yet been controlled. Whether or not we ultimately will find a way to control it is indeterminate. It would seem that any advance, personal or scientific, depends on the assumption that what is not yet known may be knowable. If a quadriplegic told you he thought he could walk again if he tried hard enough in different ways, could you be sure he couldn’t? If we based our predictions on the past, we’d be sure. It’s hard to imagine it being otherwise because it hasn’t happened. What if in 1798 an individual told you he thought he could figure out how to fly? Clearly this too would have been hard to imagine. We could take a historical perspective and show that in case after case that which was presumed to be uncontrollable became controlled. But certainly this would not prove that all is potentially controllable. However, by the same token, descriptions of actions not known to exist that lead to the assumption of uncontrollability do not prove uncontrollability.

On whom shall the burden of proof fall? To answer this, one may use a cost-benefit analysis, and compare the potential costs and benefits of perceiving control or no control. Some of the alleged dangers of perceiving control in “uncontrollable” situations are that it wastes the individual’s time and effort and will keep him or her from more productive enterprises; that “inevitable” failures will lead to perceived incompetence and helplessness; and/or believing that all situations are controllable leads to excessive self-blame when the situation “in fact “, is not controllable. These alleged dangers are by no means necessary consequences of the perception of control. To perceive controllability with respect to some goal does not mean that one must attempt to exercise it. After consideration, one easily may decide that the goal is not worth expending all the time and effort that is deemed necessary in order to achieve it. Furthermore, to begin on a path does not necessitate staying on it. One could decide that time and energy would be more satisfactorily spent elsewhere.

Some would argue that the individual who tries to attain the “unattainable” is setting him or herself up from self-recriminations: “Why did I waste my time?” If, on the other hand, a solution is found and what seemed uncontrollable is now readily controlled, the person who believed it couldn’t be may say “Why didn’t I at least try?”

If the advice means don’t try to change other people, then it is even more confusing to me since the advice itself is meant to change people, or else why would it be given? We influence and are influenced by others all the time. If the advice means that “other” people don’t want to feel controlled, that is another matter. Then the advice is really suggesting a more successful interpersonal strategy and has little to do with controllability.

Just think about it, when we are displeased with ourselves, wouldn’t it be more advantageous to change the things we can easily change, try to change the things that may be difficult, and to accept the difference between uncontrollable and indeterminate?