What can you control?

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

The most common question posed to me so far when I share that I’ve been diagnosed with Lymphoma is, “Are you scared?”

I guess the question comes because a diagnosis in this situation is something we cannot really control, and with so many unknowns ahead about how such a condition can affect one’s quality of life, it is only natural to feel helpless, and yes, feel scared. Right now, I am still grappling with that question even as I write this article, and I wish to process this via reflecting on what coaching is all about – what coaching can be for each of us – as it helps us turn towards our empowered self to discover solutions from within.

It’s easy to focus our attention on what we cannot control. When we focus on the things that are out of reach or out of our power, we can downplay the responsibility that we have in our lives, and in that process, we do not really have to move forward. Moving forward is tiring. Especially when you have an avalanche of emotions to deal with. Some of these emotions are even unknown, faceless, and quite scary. And when the paths ahead are dark and quiet, one may feel safer standing still, so that there is absolutely no risk of getting hurt – or of falling down.

Or is there a risk? What happens when we choose to focus on what we cannot control and choose to stay still? That’s when we feel stuck and we feel helpless. And what’s unfortunate about such a circumstance is that the creative self within us will inevitably shut down. And since time is always moving forward, and entropy is a natural phenomenon of life, we naturally deteriorate when we stay still and keep our eyes fixed on things that we cannot change.

On the other side of the coin, when we look out for things that we can change or for things that we have control of in our current situation, we begin to regain an agency and begin moving forward with the flow of life. Our agency is sometimes lost when something ‘bad’ happens to us. Or when a ‘problem’ arises in life. Whenever something happens, it creates a stir in the flow of our lives and we inevitably focus our attention on that source of disturbance. When we widen that myopic lens through which we see our circumstance, then perhaps we see the bigger picture. And we discover more possibilities that were right there all along.

The image in front of me can be “a bad health condition” or it can be a gesture (from somewhere) towards a part of my life that may, at this point in time, require more attention. Perhaps it’s time to slow down and take a break. Perhaps it’s time to relook at some strategies in life and learn how to let things go. I cannot really extrapolate such things for every possible situation, so I urge you, my reader, to stop right now and think about a difficult situation in your life. Are there options that you are excluding for yourself? Are there possibilities that you may want to recover for you, so that you can regain a certain agency for yourself and move forward?

That’s what coaching can do for us. When a coach becomes a sounding board to echo the words that we say, and when a coach pushes us further with small challenges to the stories we tell ourselves, we begin to be empowered. When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change. To move forward, we may need to step back, and to find some space between ourselves and the situation, so that we can find out who we truly are again. As we step back and give ourselves the time and space that we need, we begin to have the space to turn our heads towards things that may have always been there, though they were hidden from our myopic lens. We may have overlooked those possibilities because of our own thoughts, emotions, strategies, or behaviour, and we may have short-changed ourselves of the quality of life that we could have had with the right mindset.

When we look at the things we can control, we soon realise that our reality is made up of our choices. And that we can consequently change our reality according to what we really want deep down inside. We can make many different choices to construct a reality that is very different from another version of ourselves. And of course, we want to become that best version. Inevitably, those stuff that we cannot control may remain, and we can see them differently of course. Instead of looking at them as limitations or barriers, what would happen if they constitute the rules and the structure of your game right now? In any game, there are rules and those rules are there to ensure that the game moves forward and that the game is fun! Imagine playing a game of catch and the ‘catcher’ decides to run away from the rest instead? That wouldn’t be fun at all! Variations of the game because of the spontaneity of the players are precisely what makes the game fun. Let’s ask ourselves: how can we be spontaneous despite the boundaries present in our lives?

I really don’t think we need to look far for an answer, because we are human beings and we are all meant to be alive. The aliveness that we have makes us capable of spontaneity despite the fact that there are structures present in our lives. For instance, when we say hello to a family member each morning, the word may be the same, though how we say ‘hello’ will definitely change from morning to morning because of how we feel that very day. It’s time to leverage on our aliveness, so that we can make the tiny minute changes to the things we do each day, and consequently build a different and more exciting reality each day, isn’t it?

In coaching, that’s what you’ll find. You’ll find that aliveness and that creativity within you, and you’ll be able to design paths for yourself to move forward from, with, or despite your current situation. And at this very moment, a part of some of us may be shouting – Hey! I’m not that creative, you know? – and that’s something I would definitely want to clarify as I conclude this mini article of sorts. Imagine life as a journey, and that you are walking in a forest filled with trees all around you, such that you cannot really tell what’s ahead. And at this very moment, your path is blocked because of some really thick bushes that prevent you from moving forward. You have tried using a parang to cut out a path for yourself, though the more you try the more you get your hands entangled in that mess. You feel frustrated because of the mess. And naturally, you’re stuck.

You may choose to continue struggling with the entangled mess you are in, or you may decide to step back, leave the parang in that mess, and perhaps remove yourself from the situation entirely. Then you may decide to turn slightly to the left or to the right, and walk in that new direction. And as you walk in that new direction, you see and hear new things (because you are in a different place) and you consequently feel differently about yourself as well. And you know what? You have just created a path for yourself! And that act of creating a path is what I mean by being ‘creative’. We just have to turn and we’ll see new things ahead of us.

Back to the question posed to myself: “Darryl, are you scared?” To me, it’s quite a natural emotion to have right now, especially because of the sudden turn in my life towards something totally new. And I know that deep down I may have some emotions that I’ll need to face over the next couple of days. And I also know this too: just as this sudden turn had caused me to face so many unknowns, mysteries, and ‘bad things’, I can always turn myself again to face the things that I know I can control, so that I can move forward with a new reality that I create for myself for this stage of my life.

Of course, there are rules to play by, and to ignore them is really quite foolish. Yet I know deep down that I am always in control of how I see the things in front of me and the choices that I make, and this control creates certainty that can help anchor and stabilise a time of doubt and uncertainty. I know I have the agency to move forward because a turn is all I need to see new things, new paths, new options, and a new life. There are different boundaries and rules to this new game, and I'm excited to take it on.