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Tue, Oct. 22

Piacenza: Who turns the wheel?

I recently read an article whose author was convinced a certain event was inevitable. To clarify, he offered this quote from T.S. Elliot: “Only the fool, fixed in his folly, may think he can turn the wheel on which he turns.”

My husband was aghast at the notion that self-willed determination could be nullified by “fate.” I think his reaction was pretty typical of many of us brought up on the American ideal of the “Can do!” spirit. Nevertheless, while I’m a firm believer in giving one’s best effort, I saw at least some partial wisdom in Elliot’s words.

The wheel is a reference to the ancient metaphor for unexpected twists of fate, the Wheel of Fortune. Turned by the blind and arbitrary Goddess Fortuna, it was said to bring power and wealth to the undeserving and plunge mighty kings and princes into despair. Great writers long before Elliot, including Chaucer and Shakespeare, sprinkled their tales and plays with mentions of this destiny-altering wheel. We still see it today in TV game shows like “Wheel of Fortune” and “The Price is Right!”

As Medieval philosophy has given way to scientific knowledge and understanding of human psychology, the notion that we’re completely at effect of forces beyond our control is much less relevant. Yet, I can’t unequivocally affirm with poet William Ernest Henley, “I am the captain of my soul, I am the master of my fate.” It seems to me that there are always outside, and often unseen, influences on the outcome of our efforts.

Acknowledging some lack of control can actually be a kind of liberation. Feelings of failure can spring from thinking that a person should be able to “succeed” in all their various life situations when, in fact, it’s just not always possible. When circumstances don’t bend to willpower, it can take the wind out of our sails, leading to self-criticism, depression and even “self-medicating.” It’s no wonder 12-step programs for recovery from addictions start with the necessity to acknowledge a power other than oneself.

You don’t have to be a person of faith to understand that constant insistence on a desired outcome is a good recipe for disappointment. This becomes evident in any endeavors that involve working with other people. Even in the most solo endeavors, “errors” happen. From the Japanese brush painter to the Jackson Pollack-style abstractionist, artists regularly discover that the slightly incomplete circle, the odd bit of yellow flung accidentally against a field of black, can be a satisfying, even perfect, expression.

I would bet that everyone has had something turn out much better than they expected. Unfortunately, human memory seems to sop up negative experiences more readily than good ones. The tendency is to remember all the times expectations weren’t met. We sure do like the upward turning wheel, but we are even more passionate about despising the downturns! Riding this seesaw is inevitable when expectations are bound to a wheel turned by a multitude of factors — human nature, mother nature and so on.

Like the eye of a storm, the wheel of circumstances has a calm, still point at the hub. Stepping into that space requires loosening one’s grip on trying to control events. The resulting frame of mind doesn’t give more control, but a more peaceful acceptance of a constantly fluctuating reality. From there it’s possible to see more clearly the things that respond to personal problem-solving and effort, and those that don’t.

And to realize that sometimes the unexpected outcome is best of all.

For a list of 12-step program treatment centers in the Prescott area, visit https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/treatment-rehab/12-step-program/az/prescott.

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