The Illusion of Control

Dec 12, 2009

To have control of one’s life is one of the highest values in our country. We’re not beholden to family, friends, or the cultural norms. We are individualists, in control of our destiny. At least that is our cultural myth. We are free, free to do as we please. We make our own decisions and that’s that. We have certainly sought to free ourselves from these ties by moving all over the country, away from families and old friends, to new places where we can start afresh without all those influences. One can see the movement in the shifting populations, for decades leaving New England and other harsher climates for the Sun Belt where the temperatures are warmer and the climate easier to bear. But we have also left behind traditions, family structures and influences, and the “tried and true.” Above all we seek control of our lives, of our time and our decisions.

For the most part I think it is an illusion that each of us has control over the decisions in our lives. Did you decide to move because you lost your job, or the industry was going downhill, or because of an illness, or a death in your family that changed your circumstances? Did you leave the area you grew up in because of intolerable family dynamics or because you’d always be a child in your family? Did your company transfer you to a new city? These are choices we make in response to what has already happened.

Throughout our lives circumstances change, forcing us to look at other options. What we certainly have control over is how we react to these changes and our attitudes toward the changes, if not over the changes themselves. Today with the economy in a recession many are reexamining their priorities, thinking about training for a different job, hitting the pavement to find a new job after they lost their old one, moving to places or industries that are hiring or have better long-term prospects. All these decisions arise as a reaction to what has already changed. We are not the primary movers and shakers in our own lives!

Nowhere is that more true than in the religious life. We act as if we are the prime mover, making ourselves ready for the transformation that only God can bring about. I write that way sometimes: how you can be more faithful, loving, etc. But again this is illusion—God through Christ and the Holy Spirit transforms us, calls us to that transformation, decides when, where, how, and what is needed next. Our part is to prepare to meet the Lord through prayer, Bible study, helping others, working on our attitudes, etc., and to answer the call positively with a “Yes!” Preparation, response, willingness, discipline—all these are important, but God is the prime mover in our lives, we play a secondary, more passive role. It’s an active passivity, a readiness and willingness, but the action is in the hands of God. Once you allow God to move through all layers and activities of your life—home, family, work, leisure, friends, the Lord makes all those decisions and we say, “Yes!”.

It is a relief to let go and let God. The Lord knows us better than we know ourselves, knows what is best for us and how to bring out the better side of our nature. Your whole life, including relationships and jobs, functions a lot more smoothly, because the ego self is not trying to control everything to its liking, which often translates into going against the tide of events in order to recreate the past. This results in what I call “pushing the river,” resisting what already is. It’s a lot easier to go with the flow of the stream down toward the sea than to swim upstream. God knows where the energy is flowing in you and how to guide you to flow with it. The ego builds walls, protects turf, defends itself, and, in doing these things, defends itself from change, tries to bring back the past. All this self-protection is a huge energy drain as we try to protect our seemingly fragile ego. In fact the ego is a despot of the first order in making sure everything goes its way and damn the consequences. It is very strong, although often pretends that it is weak so that it can call attention to its pathetic self and all that is happening to it.

Each of us has seen the consequences of having our way in everything—our relationships are a mess, our lives are hellish and we’re exhausted trying to keep it all going. The Lord is always asking us to surrender to what is, through the circumstances of our lives, not hang on to what used to be. Life has already moved on, while we cling to the past, not because it was so good, but it is certainly more comfortable than an unknown future. The reason surrender works so well is that it’s a relief to let go of control or, more probably, the illusion of control. When we surrender to the present reality we are bringing ourselves to congruence with what’s happening. It takes tremendous energy to hold on to the past when the present is already here. Not just tremendous energy either: we remain angry, bitter even, fearful and traumatized by our own refusal to keep up with life. When we turn this defensiveness against the present so we don’t have to deal with it, we can continue to deny it.

It’s not that I think we should never resist, but we have to look at who we are hurting by our refusal—ourselves and our family. It’s okay to say I can’t deal with this in this moment, but in the next we’d better be in there adapting or we will never catch up to true happiness which comes from acceptance of and peace about what is happening to us. We don’t have to like what the circumstance is, but unless we begin to embrace it, we won’t be able to be creative about our response to it either. We’ll forever being on the outside of life looking in, clinging to what has already gone.

Our teacher in this process is nature, for example a tree. When a tree is cut down you can read the adaptations it has made throughout its life: you’ll see the burn residue from a fire, a knot that emerged and sent the tree growing in another direction, the rings of its years, scars from tools which attacked it, signs of insect infestations, etc. No matter what happened in its life, a tree continues to seek the sun, grow up and out, take in as many nutrients as it can find. It doesn’t the capacity to decide if it wants to grow today or not, it just keeps on seeking life for itself.. We can take a page or a leaf, if you will, from the trees: you’ll grow taller and straighter and have a better life if you go with life instead of against it. We can refuse to grow and change, to live in the past, and complain about the present, but, like the trees, we are designed to adapt to what happens to us and just carry on.

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