When I was a kid, my mother would hold out her fist and say to me, “See this? This is what you control.” She’d then run her finger around the fist, leaving a space, so that the shape she created was like a donut. “See this? This is what you influence.” Then she’d spread her arms wide to the world. “All the rest? Not in your control.”
This was her way of trying to get me to focus on where to put my energy. I’d rail against some inequity, far or near, large or small — the latest war on the news, how it wasn’t fair that the other kids in the neighborhood got to stay up until 9 p.m. when I didn’t — and she’d trot out her fist analogy. “Okay, I get it,” I’d say, knowing that no amount of energy I spent, nothing about the situation would change. She trotted out her fist analogy regularly and it drove me nuts. “Not again!”
Of course, she was right. Annoying, but right. She repeated it so often that once I truly understood, it has stayed with me through life and served me well.
I’m a news junkie. Never thought I’d turn into one, but with the way the world’s going and what I fear my grandson will inherit, I watch the news every day from various perspectives. BBC, CBC (that’s Canada), PBS Newshour. And when something monumental happens somewhere else, French TV (recent riots) or Japanese TV (how they portrayed the Fukushima tsunami was fascinating).
I am acutely aware that I control none of this. My mother’s fist looms into my head periodically and forces me to think about influence. Even a “smidge” of influence. One way is by donation. I support theoceancleanup.com, for example, as they deal with the plastic in oceans and rivers (with some success, I might add). My donation may not make much difference, but it does matter and it’s influence. Locally, I have a garden bed in the “Bounty Garden,” a local effort with over 40 garden beds where we grow vegetables for food banks. Influence. In my home, I have an indoor composter (I live in a condo with no green bin). Influence.
These efforts don’t make me a “good” person because I’m not expending the kind of effort that I suspect I should, the kind of effort that many good people extend to neighbors or the world at large.
I have a niece, a surgeon, OB/GYN, and urologist, who, pre-pandemic, traveled to Ghana to perform surgeries on women to end their incontinence so they could rejoin their communities. She and we might rail against a culture that doesn’t permit women who are incontinent to remain in their communities, but she did something practical and skilled. I have a nephew with an environmental law degree from Yale who works for Earth Justice to force coal plants to meet their legal obligations. He’s unfortunately appeared on the front page of local newspapers, which makes me worry about potential threats, but, so far, he assures me he has not received any.
These examples are fueled by people who make a difference, either by choosing to do so (the right kind of control) or by influencing the outcome. It makes me wish my mother was still here to stick out her fist and show the world how to figure out what’s important.