The Greatest Human Error

Intellectually, people almost always agree with me when I claim, “You cannot control anybody else’s actions.” Yet, on the emotional level there is almost always resistance — in a few cases, even hostility. It’s always a red flag when a person cannot answer your point, but still resists it emotionally.

Why do so many people agree that control of others is impossible, while the great majority still seek to control others? I’m not only talking politics and government. It’s true that nearly every political movement in history, past and present, rests on the attempt to control others — whether on a wide

and totalitarian scale, or on an authoritarian scale (as in the lost republic of the United States.)

Politicians who seek to control are simply mirroring what people do in their private lives. Nearly everyone has someone in his or her life that he or she wants to control.

“My husband won’t quit smoking. What can I do to stop him?”

“My sixteen-year-old isn’t trying hard enough in school. How can I make his grades go up?”

“My daughter isn’t interested in college. How do I make her more ambitious?”

“My boyfriend isn’t sensitive. How do I make him get more in touch with his — and others’ — feelings?”

Each of these questions rests upon a hugely flawed assumption: That the person asking the question can make the change.

The question is not: How do you stop your husband from smoking? The question is: Will your husband stop smoking? Why or why not? If you’re married to someone, he’s obviously very important to you. If you love him and want him to be around a long time, of course you’re concerned that he smokes. But he knows the risks of smoking as well as you and everyone else on the planet. It’s possible for him to stop smoking. People stop smoking all the time. He might stop, someday; or he might not. The question right now is: Why does he smoke?

The most likely answer is: He has chosen to take his chances. Maybe he doesn’t care about living a long life. Maybe he does, but he doesn’t care to think about that now. Maybe he only thinks short-range, and not long-range. Or maybe he thinks long-range about all kinds of things — too much, even — and allows himself this one short-range pleasure as a treat. There are many different possible explanations. The point is: He knows what he’s doing, and he chooses to do it. There’s no mystery.

You cannot control your husband’s decision to smoke. You can reason with him, but his decision to smoke is not based on reason. If it were, he would have stopped. While it’s true you cannot make him stop, you can do anything you want in response to his smoking. Extreme case, you can even divorce him. If such a drastic step isn’t worth it to you, that’s fine. There are a successive series of less drastic steps you can take, if you want. Will any of these things make him quit? Absolutely not. There’s nothing anyone can do to make him quit. Even if the government passed a law jailing people for smoking, he’d simply do it in secret — just as pot smokers do now. You can do whatever you wish to protest, and it might make a difference in your life. But there’s nothing you can do to eradicate his own free will. You cannot get into his mind, like a ghost or a computer program, and exercise particular judgments for him.

The same applies to your young adult children. They have free will, too. You cannot make their choices for them. When they make choices you don’t like, this is no reflection on you. How could it be? You disagree with your daughter’s decision to eschew higher education. Her decisions are based on her own beliefs and views, not yours. Wishing that she had different beliefs will not make it so — not when she’s sixteen, and not when she’s sixty-six.

I bring all this up for the mental sanity of the person wanting to control. The definition of mental health is serenity. Serenity means being at peace with that which you cannot control. Something like smoking, or your kid’s decisions, separates the “men from the boys” on the issue of serenity. You can fret, fume, get ulcers, cry, scream and be miserable — while others in your life continue to make their own decisions; or, you can be serene — while others in your life continue to make those exact same decisions and choices.

If you think that crying and fretting changes anything, it doesn’t. Adults usually do what they want, and they generally know what they’re doing. Their actions don’t always make sense, but to some people making sense isn’t the goal. “I’m doing this because I can,” is a common human motive. No, it’s not the most rational or mature one. But it’s the driving motive of many people, including, most likely, some people you love.

Get used to it.