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.”

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 and science.

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 curve.

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 bit worried.

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 emotionally draining?

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 play.

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 transition!)

What I call the "second initiation" involves the process by which the erstwhile adults 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.


Some 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


    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.