“Enough organization, enough lists and we think we can control the uncontrollable.”
John Mankiewicz, House, The Socratic Method, 2004
I am a recovering list maker. I used to start every day compiling a to do list. And at the end of every day I had checked some off and added many more. I moved to having more than one list, even writing on both sides of a page.
When it grew to the point where I felt I could no longer complete all the work on my lists, I stopped one day, looked over what I had said I needed to get done, and decided other than getting milk at the grocery store and putting shoes on my feet, I really didn’t need to write the next great American novel by noon or figure a theory of everything by dinner. I did keep one item on a mental list: Take time every morning to read a few sentences of better writers than I am, spend a few minutes in silence, breathe in and out slowly, and try to free my mind from thinking.
I used the quotation from the TV series, House, one of my favorites for taking philosophy into the wasteland of television, because it rings true. Making lists is just one common way we think we can control the uncontrollable. Some people just need to feel they are in control, driven by deeper psychological motivations than I am able to diagnose here.
But the truth is that like the myth of Sisyphus, most of us spend out lives pushing rocks up hills, seldom getting to the top and when we near it, finding the rock rolling back down with us under it. We then redouble our efforts, pushing and straining our backs to get near the top, finding the same result. Don’t get me wrong: Rock pushers are needed in this world, but according to the Jewish tradition, even God rested one day a week.
Sometimes the smartest thing to do is to stop trying to control everything and everyone around us. Sometimes, contrary to what our culture teaches us, the best thing to do is give up. Sometimes by giving up we learn how to let go and move on. In losing our need for control, we gain our lives back. A teacher of wisdom once asked: “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world, and lose his or her soul?”
So don’t put off what you need to do until tomorrow. Get rid of that pad of paper on which you keep your to do lists. Don’t get stressed out when people act other than the way you hope they might act. Relax. Take a deep breath and think of all the things you don’t really need to do tomorrow, all the people you won’t have to change, and focus instead on only a few things that are really important. And do them (without making a list).
We are, after all, human beings, not human doings.