CMDA's The Point

Control is an Illusion

June 1, 2023

by Robert E. Cranston, MD, MA (Ethics)

“Control is an illusion.” A few years ago, during a time when I was working as an executive/life coach, I began quoting this maxim to myself. I was naïve and uninformed enough to think I had created this quote, but a quick Google search reveals numerous people have said this in various forms for a number of years. Like many slogans, it contains an element of truth, but it also contains a significant untruth.

The truth it captures was important in my coaching, which is as we engage our family members, co-workers, friends and patients, control of their behavior is a faulty goal. We have no real power to change others. We can point them toward truth, we can pray for them and we can show them rational and emotional reasons to change; ultimately, any growth on their part must be motivated by their own desire and decision to change. This applies to countless forms of behavior, including medical illnesses, narcissism, other personality disorders and addictions.

The lie it posits denies that God is sovereign. God is the only one with ultimate control. He has chosen to delegate some of that back to us. In Joshua 24:15, Joshua tells the Israelites to “…choose yourselves this day whom you will serve…But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (NKJV). When you hear someone claim to have led someone to Christ, they sometimes speak in terms of “winning souls for Jesus,” but this is giving them credit which belongs only to God. We share, the Holy Spirit convicts and pleads with them, but the seeker must still make their own decision to accept Christ into their lives. God freely offers, but they must decide to accept the gift of eternal life. God remains sovereign (Romans 8:28).

Nar-Anon (Narcotics Anonymous) and Al-Anon (Alcoholics Anonymous) are organizations created to help family members and friends of people with addictions to narcotics and alcohol. Their aim is to assist those most affected by the addicted persons and their behavior, to somehow quit trying to change the addict and relinquish the person(s) to the care of God (“as we understood Him”). So often as healthcare professionals and as Christians in general, we believe we can solve whatever problems we find, and we plunge in mightily attempting to change the persons and their behaviors. Further, we view putting the person and their problems in God’s hands as a sense of giving up on them. In fact, it is incredibly easy to become enmeshed in their problems and make things worse by continuing to enable the affected individual’s or addict’s bad patterns of coping with life (narcissism and severe depression are similar to and often are comorbid with addiction).

Recently a friend sent me a poster via a text. An internet search revealed many variations of this, so I am not sure who deserves the original credit, but I especially like this version. It emphasizes some important things we can control and should focus on, as well as some other things that are beyond our control, are a waste of our time and emotional energy, and are a denial of God’s sovereignty, love and mercy in our lives.

I summarize the chart in the following way: 1) I can control MY actions, boundaries, choices, responses, words, thoughts and use of time, and 2) I cannot control the past, the future, the weather, many external factors, or OTHER PEOPLE’S opinions, actions, responses, mistakes, happiness or thoughts. The addict frequently makes the family or friend feel as if it is their obligation to solve the addict’s problems. In time, the helper may become addicted to the job of saving the addict or otherwise affected loved one. This is painful, time wasting, life-consuming and counterproductive! It doesn’t work. The helper often ends up blaming themselves for the plight of their loved one, and everyone is miserable. As they say on the airline safety announcement, “Put your own oxygen mask on first.” If we accept their blame for their situation, we suffocate, and we cannot help them.

In the 1970s, a phrase we often heard was “Let go, and let God.” Some slogans go out of fashion, but the truth of this one is timeless. There are many problems in life which only God can solve, and we should not attempt to take on His work; we should leave it to Him.

Nar-Anon meetings begin and end with The Serenity Prayer, sometimes attributed to Francis of Assisi: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

If you, a loved one, a friend or a patient are struggling under the burden of living with someone who is dealing with serious psychopathology or addiction, you don’t have to do it alone. Seek help from your pastor, spiritual leader, professional counselor, a psychiatrist, support groups or organization such as Nar-Anon or Al-Anon. There is hope, but continuing to do the same things you have been futilely doing to solve the problems will at best bring short-lived success. This may fool you into believing you have fixed the person and their issues, but this will only prove counterproductive in the long run.

Psychopathology and addictions are spiritual and physical diseases, and only God, and the person(s) in question yielding to God, will bring resolution. Furthermore, these are life-long illnesses which can be managed but will seldom ever be cured. It isn’t your job to try.

Another Nar-Anon truth:    

You didn’t cause it.                                                                         

You cannot control it.                                                                       

You will never cure it.

But with God’s help, hope can be restored and life can be managed.

Robert E. Cranston, MD, MA (Ethics)

About Robert E. Cranston, MD, MA (Ethics)

Robert E. Cranston, MD, MA (Ethics), MSHA, FAAN, CPE, is a board certified neurologist, with additional training and experience in palliative medicine, executive coaching and medical leadership. He recently retired after 30 years serving at Carle Health (formerly Carle Foundation Hospital) in Urbana, Illinois, as an attending neurologist, and (Past Chair—14 years) of the Carle Ethics Committee. He and his wife Tammy are grateful for their five grown children, their daughters- and sons-in-law and their 12 grandchildren.

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