All parents need to learn a degree of equanimity, a kind of peace with the way things are and what we can and cannot do about it.
We love our children but have limited and decreasing control over them. We want them to be happy, but realize that in the end their happiness depends more on their choices than ours. The same is true of others we try to help, and in the political realm as well as the personal.
We have, and should have, less control than we may think or want.
Some “helping professionals,” even if they work in child protection or neighborhood safety, like to deny or minimize the element of control that care involves.
Close to 20 years ago, I gave a paper at an international conference in Istanbul, and my wife and young son came along. My son at that time was able to crawl fast but not yet walk, which made for some interesting adventures.
My paper linked social care and control, and I was told by one (European) participant that social work and other professional helping was about education, not control. I argued that caring and love were inseparable from control—knowing when it is needed and when the parent or other carer has to let go.
In our toddler’s case, control was critical—which my critic recognized when he saw my son racing off toward the hotel pool we were relaxing by. I picked the boy up, brought him back to where we were lying out in the sun, and off he crawled again. And again. My colleague acknowledged, watching the scene, that exercising control was a part of caring, not least for a parent.
Such dispassionate control was aimed not at manipulating or running someone’s life but, in this case, at keeping safe a child who does not have the experience or judgment to see the danger.
But as every parent knows, children grow up. They go their own way whether we like it or not. They learn from their own experience and the guidance of parents, teachers, and others, that some things that attract them are dangerous. Some choices are self-destructive, as we lovingly (or sometimes exasperatedly) try to teach them. But they are their choices to make.
We love them and wish them the best, but their happiness in life depends in the end on their choices, not our wishes for them.
As our children become more independent, they learn, we hope, the habits and virtues of practical judgment and prudence. They learn self-mastery, so they’re not ruled by their appetites or addictions. And so on. But we as parents have at the same time to learn and accept that our control is limited, and should be.
Like all humans, our children are not robots with no will of their own. Learning the attitude of letting go, surrendering the control that was only ever temporary and contingent, requires practice and humility. We have to cultivate a dispassionate response to the world that will allow us to be at peace with reality as it is. It’s the opposite of the restless agitation we feel when we crave things to be different from the way they are. But it’s not the same as indifference, which may look similar, but which is a turning away from reality, an attitude of not caring.
In cultivating our own equanimity, we also model and teach it for those around us. We hope to cultivate gratitude as a way of being in the world—for example, by counting our blessings and teaching our children the habits of gratitude rather than entitlement. In the same way, we learn and teach the limits of our own control of other people and events. We practice an attitude of realistic, but not indifferent or uncaring, letting go.
Such a way of being in the world is necessary not only to our children’s flourishing as individuals, in relations with others, and in society, but to their capacity to let go of their own impatient urges to control their elders and transform the world to their own liking.
The Politics of Equanimity
Many statesmen, prime ministers, and presidents, among them Clemenceau, Bismarck, Disraeli, Woodrow Wilson, and Churchill, have been quoted as saying, in various versions, that a young man who is not a socialist (or communist or liberal) before a certain age has no heart, but a man who is still one after a certain age has no head.
The ages vary and we can’t take literally the contrast of head and heart, as if growth in one meant decay of the other. But the young are more drawn to the left of the political spectrum, both because of the compassion associated with it and because of their own sense of urgency about the problems they identify and the need to act now, to sweep all obstacles aside.
The virtue of prudence or practical judgment, on the other hand, is only acquired with maturity and experience. Equanimity as a habit and way of being also comes with age and experience. It recognizes the limits on our knowledge and capacity to control our world and society. It doesn’t seek to bully others into accepting our point of view or to impose an orthodoxy enforced by the enlightened few on the benighted masses—whether by state power or “woke” corporations. That’s the attitude of the utopian revolutionary, the authoritarianism or “God complex” that is an intrinsic part of progressivism or socialism in all its forms.
On the other hand, equanimity or dispassion is not an absence of compassion. It doesn’t turn away from reality in the opposite direction, in an attitude of indifference to the common good. Such a “so what?” stance is sometimes associated with, and even expressed by, adherents of libertarianism in economic life or sexual behavior. Such indifference turns away from reality, no less than woke utopianism—it rejects public action to help those trapped in dying industries or regions, for example, or to deal with such public evils as the opioid epidemic, easy access of minors to pornography, or the sexualization of children.
Equanimity, by contrast, doesn’t shy away from parental control or government action when it is needed and doesn’t unjustly violate another’s autonomy and freedom. It seeks to help as it can but also to let go, to respect the choices of others.
The challenge for parents, psychotherapists, and rulers is to learn the difference, to discern when their job is to control and when to let go. Respecting the full humanity of the one we seek to help or guide means being dispassionate and not manipulative. It means accepting the reality that others will make choices that would not be ours, but that are in any case not ours to make.
Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is,” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.