My narrow cottage garden has a low fence separating itself from our neighbours’ gardens on either side. When we first moved into this house, the garden was in dire straits. Heavily pregnant, I opted to pay a gardener to help sort it, including levelling it and laying new grass. It looked almost artificial in its perfection – a plain, even ground. It was almost too bare, too plain, without any other planting, but it made the garden serviceable for my then-four-year-old to play safely.

Fast-forward two years and we have grapevines spilling over from the garden to the right of us, and no less than three tree saplings have started growing (an ash, a bay, and a cherry). These grew through the root systems of my neighbours’ trees to the left of us. Reaching under and over the fence, the trees have continued to reproduce.

In this instance, I’m thrilled, as I love trees and they are flourishing, making the once tidy-but-bare garden lush. But it got me thinking about the highs and lows of our interconnectedness.

Of course, there is no more glaring example of this than the current coronavirus pandemic. Emotions understandably are running high, as my choices affect my community, and their choices affect me. To wear or not to wear a mask. To observe social distancing or not. To quarantine or shrug it off.

It is why countries are starting to penalise those for breaking quarantine and fines in some cities around the world for failing to follow mandates for face coverings. Our very independence of choice is threatened, because one person’s choice to enter a shop without wearing a mask impacts the choice of the person working in that shop to limit exposure to a potentially fatal novel virus. What the families of the children in my son’s class at school do impacts us, as he will be in a ‘bubble’ with them come September.

So what can we do when the actions of others effects us, and yet our control over those actions is limited or non-existent?

Clarify the circles of control

This has been helpful to me in so many ways on so many occasions. Author Stephen Covey popularised this idea which, like the best ideas, is simple yet profound.

Imagine three concentric circles. Innermost is the circle of control – the things you can control directly – what you eat, whether you choose to wear a mask, what you put in your garden.

Outside that is another circle of influence – what your partner eats, promoting mask-wearing amongst your social circles, asking your neighbour if they can trim the vines that are starting to encroach your garden. You don’t have total control, but there are some steps you could take that may influence the outcomes.

And beyond that is the circle of concern – what foods are available in the grocery store, the global spread of coronavirus, climate change. You can’t really control it.

The trick with this is two-fold: first, clarifying what goes where in and of itself is helpful to understanding how you feel about it. For example, I realised how much was outside of my control at the start of lockdown. That wasn’t comforting, per se, but it was helpful to understanding why I felt so emotional and anxious.

The second is looking at how you can expand the inner two circles. What can I do that takes something outside my control and puts it within my circle of control? How can I build upon my agency?

This can be seen in lots of quite popular ways, such as baking or organising cupboards or taking on a DIY project around the house. You get the dopamine hit of reward for accomplishing something, and you are filling your brain’s attention with something you can control. Coronavirus may be raging outside but my kitchen cupboards are ordered and under my total control.

Then looking at circle of influence, there may be things in my circle of concern that I could influence in some small way. Petitions, letter-writing campaigns, donating to charity are all popular ways of making some influence, even if the wider systems and issues are beyond our control.

There will always be things in that outermost circle. That’s life. It’s like the old serenity prayer – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.”

This tool helps us gain the wisdom to know what goes where, so we can spend our energies where we can make a difference.

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