We Can’t Control What Happened—Only What Happens Next

Our only real power is the ability to choose how we respond to the vagaries of life
January 25, 2021 Updated: January 25, 2021

We all know people like this: When something bad happens, the first thing they do is blame someone or something else. It gets old, right?

But let’s be honest: We are all that person, at least some of the time—and probably more often than we’d like to admit. I certainly count myself among those who, despite knowing better, catch myself taking credit when things go well and looking for a scapegoat when they don’t.

We can all benefit from holding a mirror up to ourselves to examine whether our own action or inaction played a role when things do not go our way. But many times bad things happen that are, in fact, completely outside of our control. So what then?

A natural and understandable response is to lament the unfairness of it all. Blame it on bad luck. Accept that the deck is stacked against us. Believe that we are defective in some way.

It’s OK to have these feelings. But it’s how we act in response to negative circumstances, in spite of our feelings, that will determine the arc of our lives. Will we be dragged down, ladened with regret and recrimination? Or will we rise above, recognizing that we have little control over what happens, but absolute control over how we react to what happens?

This stark, binary choice plays a big role in determining whether we live empowered, enriching lives, or fatalistic, powerless ones. And it’s a choice that we, as a species, have grappled with for millennia.

Thousands of years ago, Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote:

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own …”

More recently, American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr captured the same sentiment in the Serenity Prayer, written in 1933, which encourages us, in part:

“To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace …”

A Year of Externalities Like No Other

One of life’s most important lessons, which is devilishly hard to internalize, is that we have no power over external circumstances. Our power resides, exclusively, within ourselves.

At no point in my lifetime has that message been more urgent and salient than the challenging year of 2020. From COVID-19 and political/cultural unrest to economic uncertainty and prolonged isolation, we have been buffeted by relentless challenges—mostly not of our own making—during this tumultuous year.

For many of us, myself included, the notion of relinquishing control, of letting go, in the face of these circumstances seems counterintuitive and counterproductive.

But letting go doesn’t mean sitting idly by. It means recognizing that we can do nothing to affect what happened, but a great deal to impact what happens next, be it in our personal lives or in the world around us.

When we try to control the uncontrollable, we rob ourselves of the ability to experience joy, be present, be available, and make a difference moving forward.

Every time we are faced with such a challenge, we can—and must—choose how to respond. These are the “crux” moments in life that determine our happiness. In rock climbing, the most difficult part of every climb is called the crux. It’s the spot on the rock face at which most climbers fail.

Push on or back down? The choice is ours.

Jay Harrington is an author, lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, and runs a northern Michigan-inspired lifestyle brand called Life and Whim.  He lives with his wife and three young girls in a small town and writes about living a purposeful, outdoor-oriented life.