CONTROL & SURRENDER:
Seeking a Wise Balance
Adam Blatner, M.D.
July 7, 2008
This paper hopes to offer a way to think about the conundrums of control and surrender, when to do which and why.
It’s good to be in control, but we find we cannot ever really gain full
control. We live in a culture in which control tends to be seen as good
(though there is a sense of criticism for being “over-controlling”);
and surrender is generally sensed as defeatist. This is one of the
social norms of the triumphalist modern age, one in which militarism
became part of national character. (In the pre-modern age, soldiers
were often mercenaries, battles were often for royal aggrandizement,
and the enterprise was only occasionally glorified.) As humanity begins
to doubt the virtue of the warrior as a general social norm, shifts are
needed in the social norm. We are in a middle phase: Much of life still
feeds on the quasi-military, win/lose type of competition, individually
or in teams. Wrestlers and extreme fighters are valorized, along with
super-heroes, quasi-heroes (like ninja turtle cartoon characters!),
while there is hardly a recognition that a different kind of heroism
might be recognized in the disciplined art of diplomacy and peacemaking.
We live in a culture in which childish attitudes such as either-or
thinking are pandered to and thereby sustained in a large section if
not the majority of the population. The win-lose mentality has
difficulty recognizing the validity and often wisdom of flexibility and
operating in a middle range that avoids either extreme.
Another way to address the problem of the vitality of the middle is not
to see it as a vague compromise or wishy-washy neutrality, but rather
the active maintenance of an optimal middle range. I write about this
optimal range in another essay on this website titled “a little bit.” http://www.blatner.com/adam/psyntbk/littlebit.htm
As I’ve pondered the problem of control and surrender it occurred to me
that it might best be thought of in this way. Instead of the seeming
duality of seeking control versus surrender, consider that there is an
optimal middle range that addresses the problem.
The Optimal Range
I’m proposing that there is an optimal range—not too much, but not too
little, either—of efforts to engage and gain control. I’m also
acknowledging the complexity of life and therefore think that in most
endeavors the actual level of control we can realistically attain is
not in the range of 70% or even 40% but more like 20%!! (These
numbers are ways of trying to communicate a general sense of
proportionality. (I think the maximum might be thought of as, oh, 24%.)
There are those who are “over-controlling,” or “trying to
micro-manage,” and that’s considered foolish, ineffective, or
counter-productive. Then there are (in the other direction) those who
fail to be meticulous, don’t follow-up, don’t assess their progress, or
worse, lack basic initiative, work ethic, and responsibility. But there
is also an optimal middle range that involves stepping up to the plate,
taking responsibility, mixing it with wisdom, recognizing limits,
delegating responsibility, letting go, and the like. What if too little
controlling is, say, less than 8%, and as I mention, it’s getting to be
foolishly over-controlling when you get to about 20%.
What, then is doing the controlling at more than 24%? The angels,
the gods, the multi-factorial dynamics of chaos, the thousands of
variables at play in complex situations. And life is one of those
ultra-complex situations in which, I submit, we cannot hope to be
effectively controlling. There will always be unintended consequences.
This is a paradigm shift. When I was growing up, the modernist view was
that we will be able to exert increasing degrees of control over our
fate. In retrospect, this has been a bit true, and we have learned,
through what is called civilization and its technology, to advance the
overall control of our lives, say, from 9% to 14%! This has been
an over 50% improvement (compared to what we were used to when we only
controlled 9% of our lives) and as such, seems incredible! Yet
ultimately, it’s not much of a change. For my generation growing up in
the 1950s, though, so much seemed possible.
By the late 1960s the complexity of things was becoming more apparent
in all realms. Technology was breeding secondary complications. We were
becoming aware of fractals and chaos theory in mathematics, the
beginnings of postmodernism in philosophy and literature, and
encountering the implications of complexity without yet fully grasping
them. Systems-thinking was emerging in business as well as technology
Control as an Asymptotic Limit
An asymptotic limit is, like the speed of light or perfection, one of
those dynamics in which, the closer you get to the theoretical goal or
end, the harder it becomes to move one step closer. Paradoxically, you
cannot ever realistically fully attain that goal! And if you’re moving
from 90 to 93% attainment, it might take you an extra hundred hours or
units of energy, but then to move from 93 to 94, that takes another
hundred units, then from 94 - 95, 500 units; from 95-96, 2000 units,
and these escalate exponentially.
In some systems, that asymptotic rise in complexity and effort occurs
much lower in the game: Energy required to escalate from 20% - 30%
effectiveness in certain processes may be a million times what it takes
to escalate from 10 -20% effectiveness. Every situation has its own
In the realms of control, then, I’m estimating that upward-swinging
curve to operate especially at from about 19 -24% Saying it
again, the more we attempt to exert control beyond a modest degree (18
- 19%), the more we became aware of it as an asymptotic limit.
What to do, then? Obviously: Surrender. However, this does not mean
surrender at the outset. It is important—vitally important—that we
“step up to the plate,” and take responsibility in that mid-level of 9
-18%. Some folks’ job is to push that envelope: Nurses and
doctors who are seeking to control infections in hospitals are
constantly thinking about how to develop even better ways of reducing
secondary infections. Their jobs involve assessing alternative
approaches, figuratively poking into corners, stretching the limits.
Competitive athletes, engineers, and many others explore that frontier.
This concept resonates well with Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
We’re talking about a way to cultivate that wisdom. The challenge is to
become fully engaged without over-doing it, getting more than a tiny
Worry in its optimal application means brainstorming as to what should
be on the checklist, then being careful to actually check that list!
Overdoing worry involves obsessively checking to see whether you have
checked even though you know you’ve checked. Overdoing worry involves
probing in your mind, trying to grab on to all possible variables, even
though it is non-productive. What if I say that, oh, 4.5% worry is
optimal, and more than 9% worry begins to be non-productive and
Challenging the Culture
The culture still has elements that valorize effort. Again, compared to
systems where little effort is being expended, this makes sense. Get up
from your chair and get involved. On the other hand, there’s no
end-point. Less than complete success means you haven’t tried hard
enough—and this may be a misleading idea. Many people suffer from
self-reproach over circumstances in which they have really had only
limited if any control. They are applying the general social norm and
its associated belief that you can make anything happen that you want.
"I am the Captain of My Soul" (?)
There is a popular poem about being the captain of one’s soul—the
rank referring not to the intermediate officer rank in the infantry,
but the much higher rank in the navy: The ship’s captain is the supreme
commander in that isolated world. The irony in that example, though, is
that while, compared to anyone else on the boat, the captain has the
most control, when it comes to ships in the ocean, that doesn’t mean
very much. Ocean currents and weather, strength of ship and amounts of
fuel, number of crew and whether they are drunk or sober—in fact, this
aforementioned range of 8 -20% control might apply—captains can only
“control” so much.
Within that range the challenge is to exercise will and skill, develop
skills, learn the many things that can be realistically learned, and
then at the end, let go. Those who do not begin to develop symptoms of
over-controlling-ness: They begin to get angry, as if, magically, the
anger could accomplish what realistic effort could not. They are
tempted to despair and give up, which goes beyond mere surrender in
that giving up means failing to keep doing the mid-range (9-20%) of
responsibility. The actual challenge is to keep up the engagement and
responsibility while at the same time letting go—a lesson not generally
taught in our schools!
Actually, this lesson is a key one in an ancient spiritual-mythic text
in the Hindu culture: The Baghavad-Gita is a story within a broader
epic, the Mahabarata. The epic sets up the problem: Through many
sub-plots, two royal families and their allies fall into a monumental
struggle, what to them seems as if it is a world war. Within this
tragic predicament, one of the warriors, Arjuna—a noted archer—sees the
battle lines forming and falls into despair: He knows too many of the
enemy—some were old teachers, friends—this is all so incredibly tragic!
He has a chariot driver who just happens to be the great god Krishna in
disguise, and, responding to this flagging of will on the part of
Arjuna, Krishna gives him a lecture: This lecture is the core. Life is
complex, great, and operating on many levels beyond what can be known
by humanity. All we can do is do our duty, our “dharma”—which, in
Arjuna’s case, is to be a hotshot archer, a determined warrior, and to
shoot accurately and with vigor at as many of the enemy as possible—in
short, to fight like the dickens! The key teaching is “not to be
attached to the fruit of your actions.”
The key teaching is that of a balanced mixture of engagement and action
and yet non-attachment to the outcome—this to Western minds seems
self-defeating. It seems as if one should keep one’s mind on the
ultimate goal, to win at all costs. Ah, there’s the rub (as Hamlet says
in his famous soliloquy)—there’s the problem. When are the costs much
worse, much more catastrophic, than the goal? Does the end justify the
means? How much control should we attempt to exert in order to achieve
what seems like a worthy goal?
When does smart business become shrewd, and when does that become
ruthless, unethical, or corrupt? Is it only when one is caught that the
fundamental immorality of the enterprise is exposed? These are major
economic and political issues, most relevant today. We must remember
that many people in complex situations can find justifications that
placate their conscience. The wickedest of deeds seemed plausible to
the wickedest of men because their little inner systems imagined
certain valued outcomes that obviated the sufferings of their victims.
Their ends in their minds were rationalized to justify the means.
So over-control can lead to neurosis on one side and a gradual
escalation of effort on the other side—the escalation moving into
destructiveness for others as well as one’s own soul.
Over-controllingness is a big problem in the world. The secondary
problem is that any criticism of over-controlling-ness seems as if it
is a questioning of the noble goal. The idea that one can attempt to do
too much in pursuit of a noble goal is for many people still foreign,
and seems to their one-pointed determination like weakness,
appeasement, defeatism, giving-up, wishy-washy-ness, and the like.
The problem of over-controllingness will not be completely solved,
because for many people, it is tied up with their deeper patterns of a
need to triumph. This is a subtle form of evil, often embedded in
causes that are partially seemingly noble. (Example, the cruelty of
many of the early explorers of the new world who, using the support of
evangelistic clergy, felt no qualms in exploiting and massacring
natives. After all, the overall goal was to help the heathen discover
and submit to the only true way to achieve eternal life and blessing.
Better to kill many now than to allow even more to go to hell. Well, it
seemed plausible to them.)
Part of the Paradigm Shift
We have been living in a prideful era, one that admitted little in the
way of vulnerability. Perhaps this was in order to promote ambition and
effort, but such “common-sense” social norms partook of the immaturity
of either-or thinking: Either one tried hard or one was lazy; the
former always succeeded—it was the American Way—and the latter always
lost. Perhaps due to the increased news, history, and communications,
too many exceptions have been found. The unworthy have inherited great
wealth, and also much wealth has been earned through corruption rather
than honest effort. Many who are less ruthless or immoral have remained
stuck in hard-working jobs, in spite of great efforts at
self-improvement. The social contract has often found to be flawed.
This political tone blurs with the high aspirations and honest beliefs
of many educators and clergy, and on the whole, they speak to a truth.
In the perspective of this paper, those who engage and choose to be
meticulous can affect the outcome more than those who don’t, even if
they’re operating within a range of 5 - 20% of the actual variables in
Still, what is challenged is the over-simplified demand that we control
our lives, and the recognition of the limits of the control may help to
reduce the prevailing sense of guilt, shame, and demoralization that
comes from fortune not infrequently trumping effort.
The Two Initiations
This contemplation on control and surrender overlaps with another
notion: What I call the "first initiation" in more developed countries involves the young
person achieving relative independence from the nuclear parental
family, some degree of skill attainment that can earn an income, and
the beginnings of settling down with a spouse and perhaps raising a
family—in short, fulfilling the general expectations of becoming and
adult. (It should be noted that a not-insignificant percentage of
people in their 20s and some in their 30s have not yet made this
I call the "second initiation" involves the process by which the
begin to realize that in spite of having taken charge of their life,
they continue to be out of control regarding many aspects of
life! This age group (20s and 30s) begins to
experience loss of control, loss through disease, death, and other
misfortune, if not for one’s own life or that of peers, then misfortune
to relatives, loved ones, and the like. How does one cope with being
out of control? The answer, though not easy, is simple—though not all
that many people do it: Learn to live at multiple levels
simultaneously—i.e., the levels of philosophy, spirituality, religion,
ritual, humor, literature, poetry, composing, reading, music, dance,
and so forth.
SurrenderSome folks treat this word and
its associated concepts as if they were unquestionably wonderful. For
others, though, "surrender" seems to be almost a dirty word: They
associate this with
surrendering to an enemy when one should more properly be fighting,
even fighting to the death. Giving up is seen as a weakness of will
rather than an act of discrimination and realism. Perhaps what needs to
be surrendered is the illusion and attitude that no matter what, one
should never surrender.
Discrimination is needed, wisdom, nuance. Surrender is wise and
appropriate in so many situations. One need not lose status or
self-esteem if one give’s up the quest for individualized superiority
in order to love another, support a child or a friend, and the like.
What is at stake here is a wiser look at what is being clung to, what
is being grasped. Some goals are noble, others are merely ambitious and
social, and which are which needs to be re-evaluated on the basis of
the circumstances of each situation.
It is wiser to recognize that there can be too little effort or
engagement, but there is also such a thing as too much. We may benefit
from knowing when to recognize the limits of reasonable effort and the
circumstances in which outside factors take precedence. At that point,
what we are doing is less an act of defeat and more an act of
intellectual humility, self-discipline, and faith. I welcome your comments.
Email me at email@example.com
Re the Serenity Prayer and Niebuhr’s authorship:
(This prayer has a second, less-well-known part:)
Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right, if I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.