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What Can We Control In Our Lives? (Spoiler Alert: Not Much)

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

I have an issue with someone in my family. (Don’t we all?)

This person criticizes me and tries to control my actions with her opinions. At first, I was taken aback. Now I just submit most of the time when her preferences are inconsequential because it is easier to appease her than to stand by my own opinions. Yet each time, it creates more distance between us.

Why do some people insist on controlling other people when it is toxic to relationships? Even the best-intentioned people, me included, do this to some extent. Why is it so hard for us not to control, criticize, or correct others?[1]

One of my Torah teachers, Sara Yoheved Rigler, explains that in today’s crazy world, where things often seem to be spinning out of control, we want to feel as though we at least control our own little worlds. We also want to control the worlds of our loved ones, as is the case of my relative. But the ability to do so is only an illusion; ultimately we have very little control over our own lives.

So what can we control? The Torah tells us “everything is in the hands of G-d, except for the fear of G-d.”[2] In other words:

“G-d has control over everything, but has left the choice of good and evil to man’s free will. When the human being is conceived, there is a Heavenly decree as to whether he will be rich or poor, bright or dull, but it is not decreed whether he will be good or bad. This is a choice which man must make on his own.”[3]

Our wealth, our beauty, our brains, our families, and all our life circumstances are pre-determined by G-d. These ideas, things, and people are props on our life’s stage. G-d is the director and we are the actors. As Rigler explains, we are not in control of our “inflow pipe,” which is all the things that happen to us; we are only in control of our “outflow pipe,” which is our thoughts, deeds, and actions. That is it, my friends. We can only use these three things to contribute to the script of our lives.

Our thoughts, words, and actions are expressions of our moral choices. The battleground where these choices taken place is called our “behira point,” or free will point. Rav Dessler, a prominent Rabbi from the early 20th century, explains that each person has his or her own free will point based on his or her life’s circumstances. The point changes based on the choices we make. The better choices we make, the more sophisticated our free will choices become. The opposite is also true.[4]

I want this relative to stop being so controlling, but wait—my desire itself is controlling! I want her to be the empathetic and appreciative relative, but G-d cast her as the critical and controlling relative because I need to grapple with her for my own growth. If I can pass the challenges she poses and treat her with love and respect, I am closer to fulfilling my potential.  That is, after all, why G-d sends us challenges. Remember, “Pain isn’t bad. It is not a sign of failure of punishment, but simply an opportunity to strengthen your soul powers- faith, love, compassion, and courage.”[5] I cannot control her behavior, but I can control my reactions, which may ultimately influence her behavior for the better.

Spiritual growth is not easy. It’s much easier for me to talk badly about this relative and dread every encounter with her. Yet working on ourselves is rewarding and no action is too small. As Rigler says, there are no small actions, only small people who do not recognize the immensity of their actions. G-d notices every time we pass a test, no matter how small, and He is proud of us.[6]

I bless us that going forward, we should have the clarity to see our challenging situations for what they are, and work to pass our tests to reach our potential.

Resource Suggestion (for married women): The Kesher Wife Club Book Suggestion: Battle Plans: How To Defeat the Yezter Hara, Strive For Truth

[1] In The Kesher Wife Club, Sara Rigler describes the “Three Cins”: We are not supposed to correct, control, or criticize anyone.

[2] Talmud, Berachos 33b.

[3] Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D., Lights Along The Way, p. 36

[4] Rabbi Eliyahu E. Dessler, Strive for Truth!, Part Two, Discourse on Free Wil, p. 49-52

[5] Miriam Adahan, Neshama Nourishment, available here.  

[6] Id.

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