We’re in election season. We’re in the middle of COVID. It’s easy to feel depressed about the state of the world.
I’ve been trying to cocoon, not pay attention to the news, not think about much of anything at all.
I made the terrible mistake of putting up a political tweet last week before the debate (albeit one that didn’t take sides; more like a “pox on both your houses” thing), and the furor that erupted was immense.
I shall steer clear from now on.
But it reminded me of something I’ve written about before, and that I return to often myself when the news gets bleak and I become too preoccupied with it.
Sometimes we need to stop worrying about the things we can’t change and throw ourselves into the things we can.
I realized a long time ago that I am far more effective at changing the world when I stop obsessing over things I cannot change, and start paying attention to things within my sphere of influence.
I used to obsess over politics, and get so upset (and even feel so righteous, because I was obviously right!), but there was just one problem. I wasn’t actually changing anything. I could see what needed changing, but I was putting all sorts of emotional energy into worrying about something that I couldn’t actually do much about.
Sure, you have a vote. And it could be that you can even influence a few people around you to vote the way you want them to vote. And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do that–by all means, talk to your friends or family (politely and reasonably) if you feel you should.
But I do believe that the amount of emotional energy and mental space that we devote to something should be in direct proportion to how much influence we can exert.
After spending way too much time worrying about politics (even the politics of a country not my own), I realized something. Often we are trying to find political solutions to things that don’t actually have political solutions.
Yes, the world is a mess. But the answer is often not a new policy (which doesn’t mean that some policies can’t be better than others). It’s just that to truly fix something, we need to heal people’s hurts and put families back together. We need to learn how to be a community again. We need people to be good to each other, good to their families, good to their communities.
Reading the news constantly reinforced my political views and made me sure I was right (which is a very heady and great feeling), but it didn’t do anything about the essential problem–that people weren’t acting well towards each other or their families. That’s really the heart of what is wrong with our society–it’s our own relationships.
And so after one election I quit cold turkey. I decided no more blogs, no more news, I would just write this blog. By writing this blog I might be able to actually help a family or two.
I decided to put my energy into the places where I might actually have influence.
My mother shared with me this concept about influence, and I thought it was brilliant. I’m going to adapt it slightly here, but essentially we live in a world that can be divided up into three circles: the things you can control; the things you can influence; and the things that you cannot influence or control.
Things I Can Control
Basically, this circle is very small. It contains only one person: yourself. You can control what you do, how you react, how you spend your time, etc.
Things I Can Influence
You can influence those closest to you: your family, your friends, your coworkers. And you have more influence the closer someone is to you. You can influence the causes you believe in by volunteering and giving money. You can make a difference in your community. Basically, the more you can personally get involved in the change, the more influence you will have.
Things I Can’t Influence or Control
You can’t change the weather, the economy, what your boss decides to do with your company, what ISIS terrorists do–or even, really, who wins the election in November.
Most things are out of our control, and God does not ask us to spend time in areas that are out of our control. He asks us to do what we can–in the areas we can control.
But where do we spend most of our emotional energy? Worrying about things that we can’t control or influence.
Yet here’s something interesting: the more time we spend in the circles we can control and influence, the more influence we will have because our sphere of influence grows. We’re actually more effective. And there’s a side benefit: people who spend most of their emotional energy in these two circles tend to be more joyful and peaceful. They aren’t worrying about things they can do nothing about; they’re pouring their energy into things they can influence, and often they’re seeing real changes.
Let me give you three examples of how this plays out.
When something’s bothering you about someone else, change how you react
In marriage, we often spend most of the time wondering how we can get our husbands to change: how to make them more romantic; how to get them to spend more time with the family; how to get them to want to talk to us. But you can’t change him. If you spend more time in the circle you can control, though–yourself–you will likely see your marriage changing. You can change how you react to him. You can find ways to insert joy into your life. You can change how you react to the kids and change the tone of the house. And as you do that, you’ll find your marriage, and your attitude about marriage, improving.
For more help on this, see my Iron sharpens Iron series!
Learn to live in the present and enjoy those you love, rather than worry about the future
Here’s another one: when I was pregnant with my second child, we found out that he had a serious heart defect that would likely end his life early. I spent a lot of time in that outer circle, worrying about him and fretting and crying. But I couldn’t do anything about his heart defect. When I decided to spend time in the circle I could control–my own reactions–I started looking for little things to be grateful for everyday. I started learning to savour every moment I had with him. And when Christopher did pass away, I was much more peaceful about it because I had leaned on God rather than given over to worry.
Invest in those over whom you have the most influence
The first two points really talk about how not to live outside of your sphere of influence. But there’s another side to it: deliberately nurture your sphere of influence.
For me, that was a large part of the reason why I stayed home with my children. I realized that there were no two people on earth over whom I could have a greater influence, and I wanted to throw myself into them. And honestly? That’s still the thing I’m most proud of in my life. I just loved those years that I was home with them, and those years that we homeschooled.
I know not everyone is able to stay at home, and I know that some are called to something else. I also know that I was very blessed to have had that opportunity.
But we had such great conversations, and I taught them how to be the kinds of people who would change the world.
When we spend time with our kids and their friends, we can change this little bit of our culture, and that can ultimately have an effect on the wider society. When we choose to act in our circle of influence, we can end up changing, albeit in a small way, the culture that so upsets us.
Think about it: If you foster a child, you will end up having more of an effect on that child than who wins this election. If you reach out and help a single mom escaping an abusive relationship, and help her get established in a new home, and help her write a resume, and use your contacts to help her get a job, and babysit for her sometimes so she has some time off, you will end up changing her life far more than whoever the next president is.
When you spend time in your sphere of influence, your sphere of influence tends to get bigger.
And that means that you can invest in yourself, too! When my kids were little, I started writing because I wanted something to do when they napped. That’s turned into this blog, books, and speaking tours (at least pre-COVID!). Many of the young women (and young men! Hi, Connor!) who work for me do so from home, and they’ve been taking courses and learning new skills and they’re having a ton of fun.
And that’s what’s so neat. You don’t have to stop learning and dreaming now, because the internet has opened up the world to us! I’m a HUGE proponent of online education (my girls took their first year of university online, from home), and I think that’s awesome for moms and dads, too.
Yes, the news is difficult and depressing these days. But I still feel like we live in amazing times.
We can learn from home, work from home, use the internet to have an influence. And no matter what we do, we can still choose to love those around us.
So if you want to have influence, don’t just worry and fret and complain. Actually do something in your circle of influence. Invest in yourself, and those around you. That’s the way we change our marriages, our communities, and the world–and that’s the way we find true joy, true purpose, and true effectiveness in this life.
And THAT’S how you can stay sane in this election, COVID cycle.
What do you think? How do you make yourself focus on your sphere of influence, and not fret about the rest? Let’s talk in the comments!
(and please–no politics. Let’s not talk Trump or Biden. Let’s just stick to the idea of growing our influence in the world for Jesus).
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of Bare Marriage
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