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  • Writer's pictureMairin Smit

The Illusion of Control

When sweeping change happens overnight, we struggle. Because we feel like we’ve lost something that's supposed to be ours – control.

It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not. Thich Nhat Hanh

A few weeks after COVID-19 hit North America, James Hampton sent me a text.

We’d recorded his episode earlier – just as Toronto, where James lives, was shutting down and classes at the school he teaches in were canceled.

At that point, we didn’t know what would happen – how long this would last, how we’d respond or how many lives would be lost.

The few weeks since then felt like a lifetime. Stores shelves were empty, toilet paper was a precious commodity and people were anxious about whether the systems we relied on – health care, supply chains and governments – could handle this.

But underneath this anxiety, there was another feeling – anger.

Anger that people’s years had been “cancelled.” Vacations postponed. Gym memberships on hold. Construction projects slowed down. And no timeline for when things would return to “normal.”

And that’s what James was texting about.

In his episode, James talks about his struggle with needing to be in control. How it fueled his anxiety and led him to drinking and drugs as a way to cope.

And he saw how people were responding to COVID-19 as a society-wide anxiety attack.

Collectively, we were experiencing a giant loss of control – of our lives, future plans and how the world worked.

And this goes against so much of what we’ve been taught.

We’re told we can “control our destiny” and the “take charge” of our lives. That we can “do anything we put our minds to” and “manifest our dreams.”

And while these messages come from a good place, there’s an underside to them too.

They give us the illusion of control.

They make us believe we alone control our fate. And cause us to overlook the support and privilege that got us to where we are.

It’s what memes like “Maybe you manifested it. Maybe’s it’s white privilege.” – created by Corinna Rosella and elevated by folks like Rachel Cargle and Elizabeth Gilbert – call out to us.

So when sweeping change happens overnight – we struggle. Because we believed we had the power to control what happens.

So we get anxious. We panic shop, hoard toilet paper, or drive ourselves to the Yukon to escape the superbug. Actions that make us feel like we’re in control. Doing something to keep us safe.

But it doesn’t help. Those feelings persist. And the longer this lack of control goes on, the stronger they get.

They grow into frustration, anger and sometimes aggression because we feel like we lost something that was supposed to be ours.

So what do we do? What’s the antidote to this need for control?

To James: faith.

As he says in his episode, his path to recovery involved a search for a higher power – a new thing as an atheist. For him, it meant connecting with forces of the universe that felt bigger than himself – the sun, nature or the spirit of love.

And putting faith in those powers – that moved and changed things without his control – gave him a sense of peace.

So times like these don’t ruffle him like they used to.

As he put it – if you have faith in something bigger than yourself, you don’t have the illusion of control.

You know to take things step by step. Facing challenges as they come to you one day at a time.

It’s a lesson at the heart of many spiritual traditions. One of the simplest. But one of the hardest to learn because of what it requires – for us to let go of control.

But as I mentioned in my first post, if something keeps showing up – in different traditions, throughout time, from different people – there’s a lesson there for us.

And if we stop panic shopping, toilet paper hoarding or trying to escape what’s happening, we’ll have time to learn it.


How are you coping in these times? What’s brought up anxiety? What have you learned to let go of?

Share them with us – they might end up on this blog or our social media!

Here’s how – write 500 words or less in a doc (Word or Pages) or make a 1 min voice recording on your phone of your thoughts on this post. Then email it to us at:

We’d love to hear your personal perspective on how you’re working through these big questions. Don’t forget to tell us your name and where you’re from!

(If you want to stay anonymous, that’s ok too. Just let us know.)

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