I have, and this is not an exaggeration, been mulling this post for a week. I have written nearly a dozen versions in my head, but each time I get to the keyboard, I can’t translate the braindroppings into something even vaguely readable. In this, an attempt to exert control over even my (want to guess how many times I’ve started and restarted this sentence today?) public face, I manifest one of the most significant, and troubling, aspects of my personality: the absolute need to be in control. Unsurprisingly, my Lenten readings are already dancing around this topic, much as last year’s seemed to coalesce around anger (significant personality flaw #1). I finished Chodron’s Comfortable with Uncertainty (I’m not. But, as she reminds, I am starting where I am) and Al-anon’s From Survival to Recovery last week, and though I am certain I’ll be back to Chodron before the season is out, I have some preliminary thoughts on the particular for radical transformation seems to be coming into shape for me.
Control as Excess
Now, I’ve known for most of my existence that control is both a problem and an integral part of who “I” am. I joked, even as a teen who was trying desperately to deny her burgeoning addictions, that I’d never be much of a drunk, because I couldn’t stand to be that much out of control (commence laughter now). The only space I allowed for a modicum of release was in music–particularly live music, because in the atmosphere of a concert, I could, would, and did, let myself physically and mentally, for lack of a better term, flail. I simply gave into the music. Part of this was a gift from my years of dancing, screwy as that seems as there is little more controlled than a tap dance routine; dance afforded me a mental connection with music that tends to manifest as a desire to just move and be.
Now, before CD jumps down my throat with CK right behind, I am NOT arguing that music is itself not highly constructed. I would, however, argue that the language of music transcends the rigor of the music grammar, or, at least, it can.* And for me, it most assuredly does; I should also add a note of gratitude here: it was the two of you who gave me the gift of that grammar and the rudiments of musical theory that later afforded me the opportunity to study music theory in much more detail as a graduate student. My thesis (which meant so much more to me emotionally than my dissertation would), in other words, was both a gift from the two of you and an homage to your importance in my life. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
When I finally came to the point that I could admit my addictions, I became rather more aware of the ways in which I used alcohol to escape control; moreover, I’ve come to realize that the more I try to gain control over the world, the more likely I am and will be to succumb to addictive behaviors. Counterintuitive? No, not really. When I try to maintain control over life–over which I have NO control, no matter what illusions I allow myself to wallow in, I open myself to a dangerous path of needing to escape the useless control I’ve attempted to assert. As Chodron reminds, “the basic ground of compassionate action is the importance of working with rather than struggling against.” (95). She repeats in this book, as she does in several others, that another key to compassionate action is to let go of the storyline, rather than trying to shape life into a familiar, comfortable narrative, wherein we can be the victim, the hero, the whatever our desires request in the moment.
Lessons in Control Narratives
I saw a great many connections between Chodron and Al-anon, thought their ends are different: for Chodron, the path is the goal and for Al-anon, happiness (that’s highly, and unfairly, summative, but there does seem to me to be a more nameable goal involved in the 12 steps for Al-anon than the 108 teachings in Chodron, however similar the phrasing tended to be). When I first read the Big Book for AA, I identified immediately, but, then, I’d already confronted and acknowledged my addictions at that point. I was far more resisting to Al-anon, though I kept thinking that, “Hmmm….TG should read this.” But, I also recognized myself in those pages, and not just in the stories of the alcoholic and addict. I saw myself in the Al-anon stories. I wasn’t surprised, exactly, though I was (and remain, I admit) resistant. I am the child of an alcoholic whose own parents exhibited symptoms of the same (though, honestly, I don’t know enough about that set of grandparents to really say). I was expected to be perfect, in order to relieve my mother’s suffering; I don’t say this to be flip or insincere. As a then undiagnosed and therefore improperly medicated bi-polar patient, my mother was suffering tremendously. And through various means it was communicated to me that I was to be easy on her–take care of her, be good, be an excellent student, and so forth.
Was I? Oh hell no. I was a bratty, angry teen who simultaneously wanted attention and wanted to be left completely alone and assumed that she was easily forgotten. But, the direction to be perfect was internalized enough that I felt paralyzingly guilty for everything I did wrong (not that I stopped doing wrong–but I did try to hide most of it). As I aged, and myself became a parent, I demanded more and more control over my situation and became increasingly angry when that control didn’t come or when the illusions of control collapsed. I can see in the readings though, that the permission given to the loved ones of alcoholics to NOT be in control (Step One) over the alcohol or the alcoholic, must come as a terrible relief. I do wonder how I would have engaged the world differently in my 20s if someone had granted me the permission not to be in control of my mother.
All of my attempts to control my world (or my mother or my son or my cats or my “drinking correctly” rules) not only don’t work, but they create further suffering, not only for me, in many cases, but for those around me. Since I function in metaphor, let me offer this: what I want for the year, what I would like to learn (yes, still controlling, but starting where I am), is to begin to engage the world in the way my 15-year-old inner rocker girl engages music. She lets go; she’s fabulous in that way.
2010, so far, as been a model year for lessons in letting go of control. To say that the year sucks so far wouldn’t begin to describe it accurately, but, for the first time in, well, ever, I’ve encountered each event knowing, without question, that I had no control over the situation. And, in at least one case, the control I *thought* I had has been removed (I grant, I realized in the end that I never had it to begin with–it was totally illusory). Thus, I think the lessons in these books are not insignificant right now. I’m still depressed, but I recognize it, and I recognize that there is nothing I can really do in any of my current situations beyond compassion. And, if that is all I can be right now, if that is where I am, that has to be enough for right now because there is nothing else, and the constant reaching creates little more than pain.
For all of her troubles–and boy did she have them–my inner 15-year-old rocker chick has something to teach me. In the face of a depression that would soon manifest as a debilitating physical illness and some incredibly poor choices, she knew how to stop being the center and be carried off into a connection forged by music. My body still retains memories of those moments; I can feel the pulse and promise in the General Admission pits that I threw myself into in order to be no where other than there in that moment.
Right now, my readings and my year are screaming (even oddly, Attali) I need to learn to be present again. Here. Right now–not past, not future. Present. All I can offer the world and myself is compassion; control is irrelevant.
*Rather like, um, literature, sayeth the lit prof.