“A blog about control,” it says at the top of this page.
So what are we talking about here?
What is control, anyway?
What does the word mean? What does the idea mean?
We must think we know. We use it often enough.
This morning, for the hell of it, I Googled “control.” Google replied with 225,000,000 items. That’s million.
I tried the same thing at Amazon.com. Amazon coughed up 168,459 books with control in their titles.
So what is this thing that so fascinates us?
There’s an old story about blind men brailling an elephant. One feels the elephant’s side and says, “Ah, I get it. An elephant is just like a wall.” Another feels the elephant’s leg and says “Ah, I get it. An elephant is just like a tree.” Another feels the trunk and decides an elephant is just like a snake. Another feels the tail and decides an elephant is like a rope. And so on.
Control is an elephant. Big, big elephant. Many parts, many contradictions. After fifteen years of studying it I sometimes still feel like a blind man, groping my way towards the truth, one wrinkly body part at a time.
control: The capacity to manage, master, dominate, exercise power over, regulate, influence, curb, suppress, or restrain. ~ Judith Viorst
That’s fairly broad, as definitions go. My definition, which you won’t find in any dictionary but stands behind everything I write here, is broader:
The ability to dictate circumstances.
Dictate as in direct, determine or define. Circumstances as in, well, everything. Everything under the sun. All the nuts and bolts of reality, both external (the world of other people, places, and things) and internal (the world of our own thoughts, feelings and behavior).
By control, then, I mean nothing less than the ability to edit reality, transform it into whatever we need, or want, or prefer.
And by controlling I mean everything we do towards that end, whether or not what we do is effective, or healthy, or if we even know that we’re doing it.
First question: Is control the best word for what I’m describing?
I don’t know. But I’ve tried and can’t think of a better one.
The Buddhist term attachment probably comes closest to what I mean. As does a Tibetan word Pema Chrodron writes about, shenpa. But control is so much more important in English (Google lists only 16 million items for attachment) it seems the best label for what I’m interested in describing here.
What are the most important parts of this elephant?
Well, the first two things you notice about control are
(1) It’s enormous.
(2) It’s invisible.
“Some things you miss because they’re so tiny,” Robert Pirsig writes. “But some things you don’t see because they’re so huge.”
Control is one of those invisible huge things.
The urge to control explains a ridiculously wide range of behaviors. Often we think of controlling as bossing, bullying or nagging, or a controlling person as someone like Hitler, Donald Trump or Mom. But that’s like mistaking the trunk for the whole elephant.
We’re controlling whenever we scratch an itch. Comb our hair. Mow our lawn. Salt our soup. Spank our child. Balance our checkbook. Change channels. Stop at a red light. Vote. Punch someone’s nose. Flatter someone. Seduce someone. Lie. Disguise our true feelings. Get drunk. Worry. Dream.
You get the idea.
We’re all controlling, and we’re controlling all the time.
We chase control all our lives, waking and sleeping, out in public and deep in the secretest crannies of our mind. We chase it consciously and unconsciously, creatively and destructively, wisely and stupidly, from birth until death.
We can’t help it. Control-seeking is the default position of our species.
At the same time, because it’s such a given of human experience, we barely notice we’re doing it.
Control isn’t like a tool we pick up and put down. It’s more like breathing, or blinking, or the way your knee jerks when the doctor taps your patellar tendon. Constant, automatic, involuntary.
Nor is the wish for control like a faucet we can turn on and off. The need to control flows through us continuously, saturates all our behavior and feelings, infuses everything we desire and fear.
It not only drives behavior, it structures thinking. What is most of our thinking anyway, if not an attempt to somehow change some circumstance, shift some piece of reality closer to what we’d prefer? What else could you call problem-solving, planning, analyzing, fantasizing, worrying, obsessing?
The idea of control makes up the psychological sea in which each of us swims.
And most of the time most of us barely notice we’re wet.
(To be continued.)