Complex Situations and the Locus of Control

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Two circles one within another. The inner circle features a geocompass and one of those arrows that splits into three directions - all that symbolizing one's own choices and decision-making. In the outer circle, faded out underneath the circle's gray fill-color, are a picture of a house, a dollar-sign, a first-place medal, and a crown - all symbols of external, worldly things that many people covet. Behind the set of two circles, one can see the flame that represents the Logos burning in the background. This image is for articles on this site (virtualstoa.org) that prominently feature discussion on the Stoic concept of Locus of Control.
Even in situations that tempt you to focus on factors you don’t directly control, you can learn to spot the factors in the equation that are firmly in your control.
Recently I wrote a piece about how Epictetus gave examples on how just because Stoicism teaches acceptance of our lack of control over externals does not mean that we shouldn’t do what is in our power that might affect them. I explained how understanding the reason for this is key to seeing why so many criticisms of Stoic philosophy are in fact straw-figure criticisms. However, I also acknowledged that in our lives, we often face countless situations that are of a complex nature that make it difficult for the untrained mind to separate the variables in the situation that we do control from those that we don’t control – as well as how to make proper use of the variables that we control.

While it may take some training to get to our best proficiency at making such distinctions in these situations, it is a skill that we can hone. Furthermore, this skill is crucial to applying Stoicism in our lives. For one thing, without this skill, there often isn’t a way to figure out what you as a human being ought to do in a given situation. But furthermore – this skill can be very useful in reinforcing your inner citadel – in making your emotions resilient to the ebb and flow of external circumstance.

An everyday example of this process …
I will start with an example of a kind of situation that occurs often in my personal life in which I have to do this sifting. Imagine that there is an appointment or an event that you are expected to be at. However, you look at the clock and realize that there is a good chance that you will not be there on time.

Now – a perfect example of what Stoicism teaches that we should not do is provided by the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. How does the rabbit react to his expected tardiness? He frets and quite visibly stresses out about his prospect of being late and how the Duchess will react adversely to his tardiness. Does he achieve anything by doing this? No – because the passage of time is outside of his locus of control – and what the Duchess does or doesn’t do most certainly is as well. The only thing that comes out of his fretting is that he attracts Alice’s attention (which is shortly thereafter revealed to be attention that he finds unwanted). Furthermore, the act of stopping to check his pocket watch probably slows him down as well.

More essentially from a philosophical point of view, his fretting over his impending tardiness causes him to be emotionally out of sorts. So instead of just being late — he is late, and he is stressed out about it.

The white rabbit, of course, is a fictional character. But this fictional example amply illustrates how many people react to something such as being late in real life – as well as some of the consequences that come of it. This leads us to the question – what is a better way of dealing with the prospect of such tardiness?

Well – the first thing that you do, as I explained, is to sort out what aspects of the situation are in your locus of control and which ones are not. For starters, do you control whether or not you will be late or on time to your appointment? The answer is “no” – you do not. While it is true that certain things that you do can affect the odds of you being late, there are many other factors that go into it as well. So you may have some influence over your chances of being late – but ultimately, whether or not you are late in the end isn’t yours to rule over.

And what about the reaction of the person whom you are scheduled to meet to your tardiness, should that occur? That is very obviously not something that is truly yours. Your decisions are in your locus of control – but someone else’s decisions are not. So when the Rabbit frets, “Oh! the Duchess, the Duchess! Oh! won’t she be savage if I’ve kept her waiting!” – he is, once again, worrying about something that is not in his domain.

So far, I have only discussed what I try not to focus on when I am at risk of being late. But what can I focus on that is mine to control? For starters, I focus on doing everything that I need to do in order to be ready to leave and to get to where I am going. I focus on moving as quickly as I can while maintaining care over my actions – but not rushing to the point that I am prone to accidents.

I focus on sticking to what I must do and avoiding distractions. Before I leave my home (or wherever I’m leaving from) this means focusing on doing what I need to do in order to be ready to leave. Once I leave, this means focusing on where I’m going, avoiding wrong-turns, etcetera. Of course, since I have AD(H)D, there are times when I will be distracted whether I choose to or not – but that doesn’t prevent me from at least making my best effort to avoid distractions.

If there is a means by which I can contact the person whom I am scheduled to meet and let them know that I am at risk of being late, I make use of that means. I must do so, though, with full acceptance that they may not accept my explanations and be perturbed at my tardiness regardless – because their reaction is in their locus of control, not mine. As a matter of fact, it is entirely possible that the means that I have of notifying them of my risk of tardiness might fail altogether. However, these risks to the outcome are beyond my locus of control – and therefore not my concern. The only thing that is legitimately my concern in that regard is making use of whatever means exist of contacting the person whom I am scheduled to meet in effort to let them know of my risk of being late.

And if there is no means at my disposal of contacting the one whom I am scheduled to meet – then I try to just put it out of my mind by focusing instead on other parts of the equation that I can control.

Then – finally, when I arrive at my destination, instead of evaluating myself based on external end-results outside of my locus of control, I instead evaluate myself on how faithfully I did all of these things that are clearly within my power to do. Even if it turns out that I don’t reach the destination (not even behind schedule) I don’t let that fact determine my self-evaluation, but still stick to reviewing how I handled the factors in the equation that were mine to control.

So what do I get out of all this? Well – first and foremost, I am guaranteed a level of confidence through the whole process that the White Rabbit has denied himself. I have this confidence because no matter how powerless I am over the factors of the equation that are not within my locus of control, all I care about is what I can assure myself. And, as I progress in the philosophy, I gradually learn to see this as being the actually-substantial benefit – the one benefit that truly counts.

That said, there is a fringe benefit to this approach – and one that is a bit easier for those of us who aren’t as advanced in the philosophy to appreciate. That fringe benefit is that, even though no course of action guarantees that I will get to where I am going on time – the Stoic approach that I just described is more likely to get you to that point than the White Rabbit approach that I described before that.

Applying this to other situations …
The forementioned example is just that, an example. It is one kind of complex situation in which the untrained mind might be especially tempted to fixate on something beyond their locus of control. It is one example of a case in which it may take a moment of thought to see what factors within your locus of control are part of the equation and how they figure in.

The same principle, however, applies to other situations as well. Even if you can’t see how to separate the parts of the equation that are yours to rule from those that are not, the least you can do is use the situatiom to sharpen your sense — to increase your ability to see such distinctions, and train yourself more and more to value your proper stewardship of the factors within your rule rather than the external results that are not yours to rule.

In time you will get better and better at seeing these distinctions, as this skill converges asymptotally on becoming your second nature.

As you go through life, you may come upon situatioins in which all you can do is conserve your resources for other situations in which you may have more input into the equation. But that’s okay. In time, you will learn, even in those situations, to value your ability to protect your inner sanctum against the ebb and flow of external circumstance.

Leave a Reply