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The steering wheel isn't connected to anything
The Notes app on my phone is full of best laid plans. Memos to myself about my goals for the year, ideas for this newsletter, features of the next house I plan to live in, dream travel destinations, Spanish words I can never seem to remember, and more. Looked at in a certain light, these notes are little shouts into the void: attempts to assert some control over life by planning, writing stuff down, carrying my plans around with me wherever I go.
For a very achievement-oriented person who likes to plan and organize (it’s me, hi) these notes make sense. I struggle to let stuff go, ride the wave, be in the present. My mind, or at least a small part of it, is almost always thinking about what’s next.
So whenever I read self-help texts, I want VERY BADLY to absorb what they have to say about letting go of what you can’t control, accepting things as they are, and releasing expectations. I relish whatever images, phrases, and concepts they have to offer on the theme. I was, therefore, very pleased to stumble upon one of these in an otherwise unremarkable book by Chuck Wisner, The Art of Conscious Conversations: Transforming How We Talk, Listen, and Interact.
Wisner shares a teaching from a mentor who asks him to recall a children’s amusement park ride where kids sit in old-timey cars that run along a track.The cars have steering wheels and the kids crank the wheel left and right at every twist, but of course the adults all know:
The steering wheel isn’t connected to anything.
What a metaphor for life! The steering wheel isn’t connected to anything. Here we all are, furiously adjusting the wheel day and night, and it. is not. connected. to anything.
Maybe it’s an exaggeration to suggest that we don’t have any control. We may have some influence, some of the time. But it’s probably fair to say that we spend a lot of time and energy trying to shape the outcomes of things that… just aren’t attached to our steering wheels.
I can’t help but think that the hardest thing to deal with is not the stuff that life unexpectedly throws at us, but the idea that most of the control we have is illusory. In other words, we can actually handle the twists in the track. The scary thing is realizing you have little power over the track at all.
I really enjoy this idea of the unattached steering wheel because it lends a vivid image to the internal feeling of white-knuckling our way through life. It can also be an incisive metaphor for how the privileged and wealthy operate: they think that they get where they’re going because they’re doing the best job ever of driving their little car, without acknowledging that they don’t need to steer at all because the track is already laid and the car was always going to go that way, anyway.
Like the kids in the amusement park, we feel powerful when it seems as though our efforts have resulted in this or that turn, and we assume it’s a quirk or failure of the system when our machinations don’t have the expected outcomes.
Wisner notes that he finds it useful when he notices the gap between his expectations and reality: “Life sometimes aligns with my desires, but it’s equally true that life often takes an unexpected turn. We can fight and maintain our quest for control, or we can accept life as it comes.”
I’m already finding myself repeating the phrase in my head when I’m trying to relax, or hold a long restorative yoga pose, or calm my nerves about upcoming events like travel. It’s soothing and the image is a little funny, which lightens the whole “you’re not in control of anything, sucker!” message.
So are we totally helpless?!
In my (non-expert) understanding of teachings about acceptance and non-attachment, it’s more about recognizing that an embarrassingly large percentage of the things we spend our time trying to influence are probably beyond our control. Simultaneously, we’re likely spending way too little time reflecting on and practicing the things we do have some say over: our words, our internal thoughts, how we show up in the world.
Pondering one’s lack of control can induce a bit of queasiness as you see-saw between a sense of relief (I don’t have to be in charge of everything!) and utter panic (Everything’s going to come crashing down!). Maybe the trick is to find that balance point: relinquish your hold on most things, and give careful attention to what’s left.
For my part, I think the “the steering wheel isn’t connected to anything” is going to be a REALLY helpful motto as I look ahead to the start of the fall semester, especially coming back after sabbatical. I hope it’ll remind me to stay in my lane, not worry about what other people are doing, and stop imagining that I have any hope of steering an institution so it aligns with my values. This will free me up to focus on the things I can have some positive influence over.
What I’m reading: Looking forward to starting S.A. Cosby’s All the Sinners Bleed. I really liked Razorblade Tears, so I was excited when this popped up in my library.
Where am I? Taking a cheeky week of vacation immediately before fall classes start: a few days in Panama City followed by a bird-watching stay at Canopy Lodge. So much nature.
The mentor is named Wayne Liquor-man.