Mormon Parenting: Why serendipity is better than control

Published: Thursday, Oct. 6 2011 5:00 p.m. MDT

First in a series on three attitudes that are destructive and have negative impact on parenting and families and on three alternative approaches that go in the opposite direction of happier homes and more meaningful lives.

It's very natural to want to control as much of our lives as possible. Human nature desires to be in charge, at least of personal things, and to eliminate uncertainty, disappointment and surprise by taking over.

And indeed, control of our emotions and our appetites is a good and desirable thing.

The trouble is that most of us want to control much more than that. We want to control our circumstances, our children, our friends and our entire destinies. And it just isn't going to happen.

Oh, how we long for control. We try to control the events of our day by making lists and checking them off. We try to control our children by disciplining and rewarding them. We try to control our destiny by deciding who, where and what we will be. And when things go a different direction than our plans, our lists, our goals, we feel frustration and stress.

The history of the quest for control is essentially the history of the world. Human beings seem hard-wired for the desire to control things around us. In contemporary society, the instinct to control has been institutionalized by the whole industry of planning and goal setting and by the notion that control is what can bring us happiness. The good notions of setting goals and having plans and controlling oneself get expanded into the idea that we should be able to control and manage everything (and every person) around us.

In actual fact, we have control of a tiny island of things around which swirls a huge sea of uncontrollability and unpredictability, and our challenge is not to control this ocean, but to see its beauty and appreciate its waves and currents.

In the control mode, surprises annoy or irritate us because they may prevent our day from going exactly as we had planned it. Our friends annoy us because they don't do things the way we would. Our children bug us because they don't seem to want to be quite what we want them to be or to be interested in just what we think should interest them. And days when we don't get everything checked off our list get chalked up as failures because we have defined success as control.

The alternative attitude that we propose is serendipity.

This marvelous word has been oversimplified and even corrupted quite a bit lately in popular culture, becoming the name of ice cream stores, boutiques, clothing lines and even the title of a major movie. Serendipity is often defined as "dumb luck" or having something good happen to you by chance.

Its true definition, though, is much more interesting and quite extraordinary. The word was coined by a 19th-century English author named Horace Walpole, who loved an ancient Persian fable called "The Three Princes of Serendip" (Serendip being the early name of the beautiful, teardrop-shape island off the southern tip of India that the British called Ceylon and that we, today, call Sri Lanka).

In the fable, the three princes each go out in search of their fortune. None of them finds a fortune, but all of them, through their acute awareness and perception, find things that are better than a fortune — love, truth and opportunities to serve. They are able to make these discoveries because they notice things that other people miss, and thus find unexpected joys and opportunities.

Walpole, reading the fable, said to himself, "We do not have an English word that expresses that happy ability to find things that are better than what we think we are looking for." So he made up the word serendipity and defined it as follows:

"A state of mind whereby a person, through awareness, sensitivity and sagacity, frequently finds something better than that which he is seeking."

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