Being in control isn’t as much fun as you think

I signed up to Netflix recently. I thought it would be empowering to decide when to invite Don Draper into my living room. After all, how better to embrace the modern trend of Taking Control of Your Life, than by streaming on demand?

Or so I thought. As it turns out, being in control isn’t as much fun as you think.

You’d be forgiven for assuming otherwise. The idea that being in control is something worth aspiring to is shockingly widespread. In fact, many people seem quite obsessed with it.

Earlier this year, Forbes magazine published an article titled Six Ways to Take Control of Your Life. That was one-upped by success.com, which managed to come up with 7 Ways to Control your Life Today. The Huffington Post went even further with its now sadly out-of-date 12 Ways to Take Control of Your Life in 2014.

Apart from the confusion about the exact number of steps required to take control of your life, it’s far from clear whether it’s worth the effort at all.

When I was a teenager living in Ireland, the state broadcaster RTE showed Ally McBeal every Monday night at 9.30 pm. My sister and I would race to the television at the appointed time, curling up beside the fire with a Cadbury’s flake bar to discover the latest shenanigans taking place at Cage and Fish.

It was a ritual made possible by our helplessness. Monday at 9.30 pm was the only time to catch up with Ally. Miss it and miss out. We were prepared to wait a whole week for her. Not like nowadays, when Ally just paces around, ready to appear on demand as soon as I tire of Don.

People tend to forget that being in control means missing out on some of life’s most primal delights. Like the excitement and unexpected pleasure of hearing your favourite song on the radio, for example. Come on, we’ve all been there: you’re washing up, scrubbing a stubborn layer of grease off a saucepan with the radio on in the background, only to shriek in delight, rip off your rubber gloves and have a 3-minute boogie -break to Uptown Girl.

You could have just played it on your phone, couldn’t you? But it wouldn’t have been the same, would it?

Being in control all the time prevents you from committing what psychologists call a “fundamental attribution error.”

It sounds like a bad thing, but fundamental attribution errors (in laymen’s terms, blaming anybody and anything but yourself) let you get away with murder.

Back in the day, you could get away with saying things like: “Sorry I can’t make your boring cocktail reception on Monday; I have to stay at home to watch Ally McBeal.” Now, you have to say something like: “Of all the possible times available to me, I’m choosing to stream Ally specifically to coincide with your event.”

It’s hard to argue with the first. Asking someone to sacrifice their weekly ritual is a pretty big deal. Refusing to adjust your streaming habits just makes you sound like a jerk. So much for empowerment.

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This kind of conversation is going on all over Germany right now

“Under UN law, they are entitled to go to school!” said the bearded man sitting next to me. “It’s a human right!”

“Yes, but the problem is that they’re not on the books here!” a woman with a long black plait retorted from the other side of the room.

“Look,” said a blonde woman with a biro. “How did they get into the home in the first place? They wouldn’t have ended up there if they weren’t registered!”

The issue under discussion was a home for unaccompanied migrant children which has recently opened in the area. It’s located by a lake in the forest and is currently home to 55 young males between the ages of 15 and 17.

Apparently at least. There’s no way of really knowing their age since they don’t have any papers to prove their identity.

And that’s just the beginning. Assuming these boys are the age they say they are, they could be required to attend school here. Berlin state law requires people to spend at least ten years in school. If these kids have already completed that number of years in their home countries, they wouldn’t be required to do so here.

But then there’s also the Berufsschulpflicht (vocational training requirement). It requires pupils to either continue studying or attend vocational training once those ten years have elapsed.

So, assuming that these kids have in some way met both those requirements in their home countries (or at least, say they have), what then?

Well, then there’s the Schulbesuchrecht (right to attend school). That means that pupils have the right to attend school if they wish but aren’t required to by law.

To make matters more complicated, different rules apply in different German states, making it a logistical nightmare if kids are moved around. And it’s not even clear whether German law applies to asylum-seekers.

So, having got all that confusion out of the way, what about the kids in the home by the lake?

Well, for one, they don’t seem to be registered with the local authorities yet. It’s the first thing you have to do when you move to Germany. Without that piece of paper proving who you are, anything from opening a bank account to getting a job is pretty much impossible.

But the waiting list for an appointment seems endless. And without that piece of paper, you can’t get an asylum-seeker into a school. And so the discussion continued:

“So, how about we just go down to the town hall with a group of them and register them ourselves?” one woman suggested.

“Sure, but what are we to say?” asked another. “I mean, it’s not like we can vouch for them. We don’t have their papers either. We won’t be able to answer any of the officials’ questions!”

“Yes, but at least we’ll know what’s going on!” the first woman replied.

Conversations like these are going on all over Germany.

Remember, we are talking here of 55 asylum-seekers out of the close to million expected to have arrived in the country before the end of the year.

It’s not going to be easy. But I sure am proud to be living in a country ready to take on the challenge.

On Sunday, I’m going to meet some of the boys at an event organized by volunteers in my area. The “Advent Sunday” party will introduce the youngsters to the delights of German Christmas biscuits – a staple requirement for successful integration into the culture.

The other hurdles won’t be quite so sweet.