What we can control, and cannot

Jose M. Montelibano

There are many ways to look at the time and even more ways how to react to it. Time is something we have but cannot hold on to no matter how we try. It is something we have had plenty of but can never guarantee we will have more of. Time starts being very unappreciated and ends up being desperately desired.

Time is like an illusion. It is a reality that seems more virtual than material. It is difficult to describe, and we do so by relating it to events, people, and places. It can be said that time is intimately related to our experiences or manifested by them. We try to give time numbers, number of seconds minutes, hours, days, weeks and months. Yet, numbers are irrelevant when they are separated from experience and imagery.

Time is so nebulous but the amount of struggle and conflict that man has engaged over it is actually shocking. Time waits for no one, as the saying goes, but we wait and wait. Ask the commuters chasing time; they wait for a ride. Ask the hungry in search of food; they wait in pain. Ask the boss looking for results past the deadline; he or she waits and agonizes (later makes you pay). Ask the public expecting to be served by those they elect and appoint; they, too, wait. For all who wait for something or someone, time is all they have, or time is all they do not have.

Alive for seven decades now, I realize I have had different notions about and relationships with time. Mostly, I took it for granted. It was as though it would always be there and I did not even have to think about it. But not anymore, not when one is in the seventh decade of life. Time becomes all too real even though it cannot be held in our hands. Time becomes almost all important. Its value suddenly shoots up when the realization comes that it can be gone in a moment.

We have not really lived in time. We lived in our experiences. When we remember a time, we remember it in the forms of life we encountered. Time is seen in the relationships we had with others, in the environments where we were, and with the people who had impacted us. When we begin to entertain the thought of time disappearing from us, we do not measure the numbers. Instead, we see the faces and imagery of what is dear to us. We bemoan that all these will end for us. That is what death can seem to many – the end of all this, and this represented by time.

If we have the inclination and the capacity to go through time backward, if we go through a journey of remembrance, starting with yesterday and go back as far as we can, we can quickly see how we seem to have wasted time. When we have flashbacks of our experiences, we will see how we valued people, places, and events then and how we should have valued these otherwise. Because we will become aware that we gave too much here and too little there, the net result of which is that we could have lived our lives better.

Regret, though, is not the objective of realization. Rather, it is learning and attaining a higher level of understanding. Yes, regrets may be felt but, hopefully, they must not become the new form of wasting time. We cannot go back to undo what is one. But we can use the learning to create and a new set of experiences and relationships. In other words, since time has become more valuable to us as we age, we can honor it better through the way we live it.

In my case, I have come to see the details of the past as patterns, recurring patterns, and as patterns, they are more visible to us. Details are so voluminous; literally, we can get buried in them. Patterns, however, dictate probabilities. If we can see the destructive ones more clearly in retrospect, and why they had evolved that way, our insights can begin to dismantle these patterns in our lives – or whatever is left of it in terms of time. The positive ones, too, must be recognized and used as our motivation to do more in the areas where we have not yet applied them.

What must be one of the most important lessons that life was trying to teach me all the while, and where my learning came so slow, was about knowing what we can control and what we cannot. This is the source of great struggles and conflict that I had mentioned earlier. A wise man and Greek philosopher, Epictetus, who lived two thousand years ago said it very well:

“Some things are in our control, while others are not. We control our opinion, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything of our doing. We do not control our body, property, reputation, position, and, in a rod, everything not of our doing. Even more, the things in our control are, by nature, free, unhindered, and unobstructed, while those not in our control are weak, slavish, can be hindered, and are not our own.”

What a great lesson to learn so as not to waste time, energy and emotion, to focus on what we can control and to better understand the dynamics of what we cannot control but are a part of. We try to control what we cannot and unwittingly play in an arena that may belong to others, to even to us but only collectively. It is here we fight for control – where control is not meant for us. Collective arenas are elevated by contribution, fractured by control. It is in finding what we can contribute rather than what we can control that we mature as individuals and enable society to prosper.

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