Sunny Side Up: Control what you can in life

In challenging times, it’s easy to believe that we have little control as we perceive life’s events controlling our circumstance. But when we learn to open up and lean into the reality of our situation rather than avoiding it, we can get our bearings and move in a direction that’s more helpful. —

This past week we’ve been reminded of the instability and uncertainty that has defined 2020, from the Covid-19 outbreak to the messy transition of power in the aftermath of the US presidential election.

We all know, intellectually at least, that life is uncertain. We never know what’s going to happen tomorrow or next week, or five years from now. But many of us find comfort in a sense of stability when life goes about its usual, rhythmic business.

Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, people would go about their routines: travelling to work, mingling with fellow commuters; meeting people, shaking hands, enjoying lunch in busy eateries, and so on. All of this came without much thought of wearing masks or washing our hands frequently to prevent the spread of infection.

This time last year, the notion of having our temperatures taken each time we enter a shop and recording our movements would have seemed ridiculous. Today, we accept these and other safety precautions as necessary norms as we adjust to a new reality that continues to test our collective resilience.

Despite the robust spirit of our nature, we are creatures of pattern and habit and, as such, many of us experience moments when we struggle to cope with the idea of working from home over long periods, having fewer opportunities to socialise, or adjusting to the harsh reality of loss. Thinking of grief, we tend to see it as a response to the loss of a loved one, and sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen countless families losing people close to their hearts.

But grief can also be a response to any kind of loss that we feel, and especially so when a loss comes suddenly. This could be the loss of someone’s livelihood or business, or the sense that we’ve lost a degree of control due to a virus we can neither see nor understand, but nevertheless have to protect ourselves and others from contracting.

In recent work with clients, a common question has been, “How can I cope when there’s so much uncertainty and so much change to get my head around?” There’s an understandable desire to get rid of the grief, the anxiety, and the despair felt so intensely. None of us wants to feel discomfort or to suffer, and yet a willingness to open up to the pain we feel is the beginning of its healing.

When we ask, “Why is this happening?” or, more specifically, “Why is this happening to me?” we’re dismissing life as it is and trying to grasp for the safety of how we feel life should be. The more we strive for the fantasy, the more exhausted we become. What we resist, persists. It feels counterintuitive to open up to what brings us discomfort, and I’m certainly no stranger to wishful thinking and hoping that, if something could just change, everything could return to normal and we could all carry on. The trouble is, when we get caught up in wishful thinking or try to suppress what we feel, our reluctance to open up to how life is at the moment prevents us from being aware of what we are in control of and taking steps to help our situation.

For example, let’s say we have family members in other countries. We might get caught up in worrying about them, feeling like we’re unable to help them, and that we should be doing more. In this state, we might feel useless and helpless.

Although there is distance between us and our loved ones, we can open to those feelings of sadness and despair that we can’t be close to them. It sucks – this is the reality of our situation.

But what we can do is connect more with them, we can offer whatever support and assistance that’s possible; in place of physical touch and affection, we can use our words to keep in closer contact. Rather than denying the difficulty of the situation, we acknowledge it and then think of the steps – however small – we can take tomake a difficult situation manageable and bearable.

In challenging times, it’s easy to believe that we have little control as we perceive life’s events controlling our circumstance. But when we learn to open up and lean into the reality of our situation rather than avoiding it, we can get our bearings and move in a direction that’s more helpful.

The human mind is a wonderful tool in many ways, but it’s also adept at hooking us with its endless commentary on how awful and uncertain and painful life can be. Like a friend who wants to protect us but tries too hard, we forget about the control we have over how we act.

As many people who have faced unimaginable human suffering in recent history remind us, we can’t always control what happens to us, but we can learn to control how we choose to see adversity and how we conduct ourselves in the face of it.

Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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