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Control.Not.

September 12, 2011

“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 is the Serenity Prayer, adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program.  Whether or not you believe in God, or are a recovering alcoholic, or in denial about it, this quote has had special meaning recently.

As an architect, I have told any number of clients who worry about construction schedules that winters in Connecticut are fairly benign: “Once in 20 years we’ve had a construction issue due to weather.”  Well this year was the 1 in 20 – the weather was unrelentingly bad for two or three weeks, imposing its will on everyone, but more accurately, casting a pall on life here in New England.

Recently, the faintest vibration of the earth beneath us in rock-solid Connecticut made us all feel that we were sitting on earth with all the structural solidity of Jell-O.  While it didn’t create the pall of the winter, it definitely further eroded our sense of stability.

Then weather intervened again – not even a hurricane, a mere tropical storm – and Irene sent this part of the world into a sense of unalloyed “not again” with its power outages, coastal destruction, and, for the people of Vermont, outright devastation.

The anniversary of 9/11 echoed the sense that things usually solid can be broken – those buildings and a social assumption that evil only occurs on defined (and, for America, remote) battlefields.  Once again, events proved to be outside of our control.

On the human side, millions of Boomer parents have seen their deepest desires for control – the creation of fruitful, happy and talented offspring – come to the dramatic change point of abandonment by the foci of so many efforts of control – going off to college.

What about humans makes us think in that we ever have control?

There has to be a hardwired component in all of us that ends up being surprised at things that should be, if we were Vulcans, completely unsurprising.  Babies are born every day, but when our own babies are born it is the greatest day in the history of civilization.  People die every day, but when somebody we know and love dies, it sends us into a depression which is sometimes bottomless.  Weather changes constantly, earthquakes happen everywhere, but we’re surprised by their lack of scheduled appearance.

Almost everybody of a certain age comes to a realization that they need glasses, either to see far away, close up or both.  That change surprises us, even though we know it’s coming.  A few of my friends even have conditions that, will, ultimately, probably lead to some form of effective blindness.  And it is this physical blindness that begins to answer, for me anyway, why we are so surprised by what should be unsurprising.

Control is taken for granted until it begins to go away.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, we feel we are in control because we build our houses, cook our food, make money, choose our clothing, get our kids into the elite travel soccer team, get the job promotion or simply just change the channel on our television set.

It is in the odd crack in the veneer of consistency where we discover our genetically inflicted blind spots.  We are blind to what limits our ability to control.  In a way, it is imperative that we have the sense of control or else the beating of our hearts does not have much purpose behind it.

The irony is that for millennia, humans have always felt something larger than themselves in their minds and hearts.   My scientist friends have an engine of purpose in discovering subatomic particles that will in some way answer questions that, when you think about it, have absolutely nothing to do with our lives past, present or future.  My deeply religious friends desperately want to understand the mind of God so that they can divine what plan is there for their lives.

Human beings are uncomfortable with the reality that what you see is what you get.

The duality in our lives is as obvious as the things we are in denial about.  When a hurricane comes and wipes out houses and frozen foods, we don’t sit down and cease to move with the assumption that everything we have worked for can be wiped away by a storm (or, more extremely, a glacier 20,000 years from now). The opposite is true:  when things go out of control, human beings respond by taking more control.  We work in overdrive to overcome those things because the small furry mammals that preceded us survived when the going got tough, because they took control, and those who did not take control didn’t make the cut.

If a lack of control didn’t bother us, we wouldn’t work to regain control.   If we didn’t ultimately regain control, part of us would be dead and the body would soon follow.

It is soft solace to think that in any way the depressing winter, the disturbing tremors, Irene’s devastating winds and tide or reliving 9/11 should have any kind of silver lining.  The bare fact is that those things wreck much of the mindset we’ve tried to prop up in our lives.  But just as New England farmers have had to deal with the fact that they had a 3-month growing season, we have to play the hand we’re dealt.  Things that are out of our control are, in fact, the meter upon which all life is played out.

After these events, we recognize that control over most things in our lives is temporary at best.  But beyond that sense of dark resignation, one simple abiding fact is revealed in these breaks from our expectations:  that whether it is science, God or our families, there are overarching, far-reaching and exquisitely motivating forces that finally guide the purpose of our lives.

When the mini-theater event of walking into an empty child’s bedroom the day after college matriculation tugs at your heartstrings, know that ultimately the transition to adulthood means that on a great many levels, a parent’s life has been worth it.  We have had a mission, a central focal purpose and if our kids survived intact, well, “Mission Accomplished.”  I have never met a parent who felt that their expectations for their children were met.  Straight ‘A’s are great, but that might come at the cost of not liking your music or being a Tea Party member. Attempting control of our spawn is, at best, incomplete – and at worst, counterproductive.

The weather, geologic reality and terrorists have rendered the essential assumptions of our ability to control absurd. And we should use that sense of absurdity to be okay with the inevitable truth that our children become themselves not because of our efforts to control their experiences but in coincidence and in response to them. “First do no harm” turns out to be control enough…

In the end, all we really do control is our perspective.  If we know where we can have impact, and where we can’t, at least we acknowledge reality versus whistling past it.  Of course, I will plant flowers that will never bloom and die young in my dim piece of dirt, proving that no level of truth telling can suppress the ultimate facilitator of the control imperative:  Hope.

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