What Remains Within Our Power to Control in a World That Can Seem Out of All Control

What a year 2021 has been. 

Shootings, political battles, wars, climate change, pandemics, inflation, anger and so on. It can be daunting to hear about what is going on in the world that we cannot control.

We also cannot control the weather, seasons or natural disasters. We cannot control what happened in the past, where we came from or what others think, say, feel and do. These are situations that we might just accept and stop worrying about since doing so can take its toll on our health, both physical and mental.

Yet, there are matters and events that we can control and where our impact is on a continuum. We cannot guarantee world peace, but we can join or support financially an organization that works toward that goal. Or, we can simply make Dorie Greenspan’s Pierre Herme’s World Peace Cookies in homage to world peace, share them and hope that the sweetness will help encourage others to help, too.

But what are we to do about other matters? Some of us may be directionally challenged (we both are) and have even more trouble driving in the dark. Yet, we try to control our challenge by having a good service such as Waze Navigation with us and leaving a destination early enough to avoid driving on pitch black roads.

Homelessness in this country is on the rise, and though we alone can’t wipe it out we can donate to organizations that fund affordable housing, volunteer to feed the homeless at shelters or help to build homes for them. These are tiny efforts that are within our control.

In our book, Not Dead Yet, we stress the importance of taking control of what we can. Your good friend is upset that you didn’t include her in an invitation for a small gathering. You cannot control how she feels, but you can control your reaction. Tell her that it was an oversight and, of course as your good friend, let her know she’s invited. Apologize sincerely. Whether she accepts your explanation is on her. How you choose to handle it is on you. If it were in reverse, express how you’d feel. As the clock ticks down, you don’t want to hold grudges, or do you? Let’s face it, none of us will get out of life alive so make the best of what time we have left.

What else can we control realistically? More than you think. Each of us can control what is right under our nose: Ourselves and how we feel about certain people; the foods we put into our bodies; our finances and how we spend money or save; how we relate to our adult children and our spouses or partners; whom we want in our circle of friends; the way we want our homes to look, the hobbies and volunteer activities we choose to do; our health in terms of staying on top of how we’re doing mentally and physically; our work or how much we take on based on financial need and interests; where we live, unless we’re extremely ill and need assisted living or a nursing home, and even then we might have a say in which facility to go to.  

We have compiled a list of a few situations where we might feel out of control and what is within our purview to change. This list, which goes from hardest to control to controllable, barely scratches the surface of this massive topic. Feel free to weigh in on what you feel you can control and how you might do so.

#1 Political climate

Like it or not, politics and politicians (love ‘em or hate ‘em) are here to stay at the local, state and federal levels.

Within our control: Disgruntled, get out and vote to effect change. Support the candidates and issues you believe in. Sign petitions and make phone calls to your Congressional people. March and protest if that makes you feel better and engaged. Not seeing any results? Donate to causes that support what you believe in such as eradicating racism, high taxes, poverty. Also, you can become an advocacy volunteer, either remotely or in person. Training is often provided by various groups such as AARP or National Council of Jewish Women. And if you really want to make a difference run for office, starting on your local level and moving up if you feel success, and have the time and energy. 

#2 Climate Control and how to save the trees

Overall, we can only do our part which might not be nearly enough. The planet is heating up.

Within our control: Recycle. Avoid use of plastics whether bags or bottles. Push for and support reducing carbon emissions through our time and donations to groups that are trying to “save the planet. Margaret Renkl in a New York Times piece, "The Climate Crisis Is Raging, but We Are Not Powerless" (Dec. 13, 2021) writes, "I don't mean simply voting for green candidates. I’m talking about supporting the environmental nonprofits that turn donations into collective action." Local actions won’t eliminate the problem, but everything we do helps. Grass roots efforts might spread like mulch. One problem is the rampant cutting down of trees, which take in toxic carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. So, every time a person dies or achieves a wonderful goal, plant a tree in their memory and honor. Use wood for floorboards and cabinets that is sustainable rather than exotic species that don’t grow back easily. 

#3 Taxes

They keep going up and up and some of those who make the most money end up paying the least. It puts the burden on the little guys like us.

Within our control: Just pay them. You can always donate money or use other devices in the tax code to reduce taxes. Upset with the amount? Talk to your financial professional about how to reduce them. Support the candidates that share your point of view regarding taxation. And if you’re struggling to pay your taxes or have been overspending, find a bank officer or another financial professional to help you budget better so you and your taxes get back on track. Not doing so can result in fines and even going to jail for tax evasion.

#4 Poverty and Income Inequality

We have no control what others earn. Poverty is a fact, and it is basic to the workings of a capitalist marketplace that excludes a significant part of the population from decent jobs and, in turn, the means to purchase private goods for their families and themselves. Our capitalist system generates poverty in other ways as well. In the drive for profit, for example, capitalism places a high value on competition, education and efficiency. A lack of skills and education becomes the cause of one generation’s poverty, and a symptom of the next.

Within our control: Dig down into your pocketbooks and offer help to those less fortunate. Support small businesses and entrepreneurship. Buy local. Encourage an affordable and good education for everyone whether that means going to college or learning a trade. Support free community colleges. Fund a poor child’s education, mentor a child, sponsor a family. And work at the ballot box to increase the minimum wage to a reasonable living sum. Use social media to create social awareness.

#5 Aging

It’s going to happen folks no matter what fancy creams you apply or how you dress, what you drive and what programs you watch and magazines you read.

Within our control. Some control the process externally with plastic surgeries, Botox injections, laser treatments, fillers, hair dye and more. Some do so by working out and getting very trim. Yes, it’s great to look younger, and that may make us feel better, too. However, older age looms regardless. We do have control to a certain extent over how we feel and take care of ourselves, mentally and physically. Here’s our prescription. We go for annual checkups. We see the dentist every four or six months and floss and brush twice a day. We try to eat healthier most of the time. We try to exercise our bodies and brains. We try to get enough sleep. And we definitely try to avoid being and feeling isolated by reaching out to others. We even work to make new friends.

#6 Failure

Failure throughout our lives is inevitable. We will all fail in some things and succeed in others. The roller-coaster can be tough at times but getting off it isn’t an option for us.

Within control. It’s how you handle failure that matters most. It’s fine to get upset, scream and stomp and then get over it. Look at failure as a learning opportunity to do better and cope better next time. Maybe, you failed a test because you didn’t study well or studied the wrong information. You burned a turkey because you forgot it was cooking or put the heat on too high and for too long. Next time set a timer to remind you that something is cooking. Check it periodically. You didn’t get an assignment in on time and were reprimanded. Next time, start earlier or work later hours until the job is complete. You failed to get the job you really wanted and were in the running, but you performed poorly at the interview. Next time, practice in advance with a friend; even read up on speaking clearly.

#7 Technology

We love it; we hate it. It can be so frustrating. Technology will only continue to ramp up and probably keep on confusing most of us in the older cohort.

Within our control. Learn what you can. Find a good IT person to help you when there’s a glitch, if you aren’t still working and have access to an IT department. Ask a younger person for help. (We try not to ask our grown children, however, because they often find it frustrating to work with us.) Don’t beat yourself up since learning some of this technology doesn’t come easily for all. And we had to learn it as adults unlike our kids and grandkids. There is also free help through many schools and public libraries. One source is the Tech Soup (volunteer) contingent at the Marlene Meyerson JCC in Manhattan. They will teach one on one and even make a house or business call. It’s cost free!

#8 Our Health

We can try to live as healthy as possible, but there is no free lunch. Most of us will have some health issues as we age, and our parts break down.

Within our control. As we stress in our book, Not Dead Yet, it’s important to stay on top of our health and find the best health insurance we can afford. If you have pain or a lump or bump that should not be where it is, see a doctor sooner rather than later. If your hips or knees hurt, get an x-ray. You might need replacement parts. Living with this pain can diminish your life drastically. If you are having trouble with your eyes, get them checked especially for eye problems that might run in your family such as macular degeneration or glaucoma. As we age, dry eye is another annoyance that is treated with the proper drops. If you’re saying, “What did you say?” more and more or turning up the volume on the TV or radio, it might be prudent to see an audiologist to test your hearing. Get a baseline and then get it checked again. Having more doctors on your speed dial is tiresome but staying on top of problems will add joy to your days.

#9 Vaccines

Some people are skittish about getting them for themselves and their children. The unvaccinated, however, pose a health problem to the rest of us. We have no control over this, and it can be stressful and pointless to argue.

What you can control. In the same vein as taking control of our health, are the availability of vaccines to keep us from contracting serious diseases. Those of us who grew up in the 40s, 50s and 60s, were vaccinated against measles, polio, whooping cough and so much more. Did we question it? No. However, today many feel whether to vaccinate is a personal choice. We can make sure we’re vaccinated against the flu and Covid-19, get boosters, wear a mask if we’re not amenable to getting vaccinated, wash our hands and avoid those who don’t do these things or say they feel a bit sick. We can also limit our social interactions if we feel it’s too risky to be in groups indoors.

#10 Spirituality

Some of us have turned to religion or tapped into our spirituality as our clocks run down. Spirituality doesn’t mean religion, per se, but rather something bigger. It won’t stop us from dying, we have no control over that, but it gives us solace and a sense of peace.

Within our control. For some, spirituality offers her an awareness of living in the present and stepping away from distractions through meditation or reflecting. This means focusing on what gives life its greatest meaning and pleasure, including strong connections. For others, it means working to make the world a better place in whatever time we have left. Or, spirituality means realizing that the world is not about us. We have control over how we treat others. Most of us really want to treat them the way we’d like to be treated.

#11 How we Feel About Ourselves

How we feel and feel about ourselves is very much within our control. And there are steps we can take.

What we can control. This is about being sanguine in a tough situation. Rather than focusing on why, or poor me, let’s pull out our assets and use them. We can think, act, create, shift gears. We’ve had many years to learn how to so. And how lucky we are. We have healthy, employed children (in most cases), a roof over our heads, a decent income, in Barbara’s case a wonderful partner, a community of friends, talents that we tap, and other relatives whether siblings, cousins or aunts and uncles. Wake up and be grateful, it’s the best morning pill you can swallow.

#12 Live Our Lives in Good Conscience

This may take practice and conscious effort.

Within our control. Do for others without expecting a payoff. Do the best that we can do in our relationships, our work and our passions without stepping on anyone else’s toes. Be authentic and honest in our daily work, other endeavors and relationships. Be thoughtful and kind.

A life well lived is up to us. It’s easier to change ourselves than to change the world.This we know. Yes, the political climate is messy, our planet is heating up and we have enemies.

However, as we head into a new year, let’s look at changing what we can in small increments. We know from experience that it will make us feel so much better and help others be and feel better, too.


  • Betsy Jacaruso

    Thank you Barbara amd Meg. It’s helpful to be re-directed emotional reaction into small actions and behaviors that can make a positive difference when we feel overwhelmed and doom full in this crazy time. So inspiring!

  • Jeffrey Stiffman

    Really excellent column as usual. Happy New Year!

  • Barbara Sirois

    Thank you, Barbara & Meg for guiding us to live our lives “in good conscience” & to do what we can to better other people’s lives. I can’t think of anything more important.

    Happy New Year to each of you and congratulations on your most recent publication.

    Thank you for your hard work and generosity; may it be reciprocated in kind in 2022.

  • Deebo

    This essay is one of the best. Good coverage and so thoughtful.

  • Erin

    Well said.

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