Sunday, July 15, 2007


    He heads for the kitchen again; searches the refrigerator for the TV dinners, bought for him for Wednesdays. Fried chicken. Peas and carrots. mashed potatoes. Apple slices. He turns on the oven. "Take the dinner out of the cardboard envelope, tear back foil to expose chicken, cook 35-40 minutes." Obey all rules and do as directed, punishment may be lessened.

    Don't doubt that there will be punishment.

    Punishment? Of course, for losing control. Always. One of life's unwritten laws.

    ~Ordinary People, 183
I feel like I need to be in control.

Of what, you ask me? Of everything. Of everything that is in my power. I need to make sure that events unfold a certain way, that everything is done to my specifications. I know that if I do not do something, it will not get done properly. I must do everything myself. I cannot delegate. Delegating to others leaves you open to the possibility that you will be screwed over; people will not live up to your expectations. So you do not delegate. You do things yourself. You can trust yourself and even if it takes far more time, effort or energy, you know what the final product will be. Chance is not a factor. The chance that someone you trust will not come through. The chance that you might get a poor grade. Never.

Control. Above all things, control.

Control gives me power. Control means that I am in charge. People cannot force me to react in a certain way. People are unable to antagonize me. People, in fact, need have no impact upon me at all if I choose not to let them. I can block them out. I can control my own thoughts, feelings and emotions. And I can protect myself. I don't have to react just because you ask me to do so. I can choose.

The problem is the reason for this control. This control is my way of saying I understand everything. Yes, this all makes sense, I nod; I'm in control. This is up to me. This is my decision. And if this does not work out as it should, this is my fault. Someone to blame, even if it is myself, gives me comfort.

I will show you how far I take the idea of control. I will deliberately commit sins. They don't have to be major sins, more likely they are sins of omission. And why? Because if I am punished for something, I want to feel like it is my fault. I chose this punishment. I deserve it. And I know I deserve it, because I did it to myself. God is not at fault here. I don't have to deal with the fact that I don't understand why God would do something unkind to me. That's because I do understand. I have given him an excuse. Whatever you do to me, God, it is justified. It is my fault. I caused it.

The idea of there not being someone to blame terrifies me. The idea that it's nobody's fault. That we don't all fit into boxes. That God can do something to me and I will have absolutely no understanding as to the reason why. I don't even want to think that way. Which is why, for me, it is preferable to do anything in order to mantain control. Except that I understand this is problematic. Ordinary People does it best, but there are others and other books where I see this.
    "You don't understand," he says. "It has to be somebody's fault. Or what was the whole goddamn point of it?"

    "The point of it," Berger says, "is that it happened."

    "No! That's not it! That is too simple-" (224)
But why? Why's that too simple? It's not too simple. It's the truth. It doesn't all have to be my fault. It doesn't have to be anybody's fault. And if things don't go as they should, punishment does not necessarily ensue.

I know why I want to be in control. It's because too often, I have been in situations where I had no control. In elementary school, I was bullied by a girl who had the ability to reduce me to tears. No matter how I tried to stand up to her or to ignore her, she was able to use me as she liked. And I would cry in front of her and hate myself for crying and swear I wouldn't ever do it again. But I did. And I was angry with myself for losing control like that, for being too sensitive, for being unable to fight back. I was angry with myself for showing my feelings. I knew that I shouldn't, that this was a weakness and a vulnerability that I must learn to conceal. But I didn't know how to go about it.

Then came high school. My former bully was replaced by a much bigger bully: the administration. The powers-that-be. The teachers became the enemy. Did they do it purposely? Perhaps not. It depended on the situation. But again, I was forced to stay behind for one-on-one conferences with teachers who terrified me. Teachers who yelled at me or who used very soft sibilant tones, questioning and suspicious tones with me, insinuating that I had done something very wrong. And again, they were able to reduce me to tears. And this demonstrated their power over me. They had all the power and I had none. And again I hated myself for letting them win, for showing them how they had gotten to me. For having no control. Pitiful weakling. You have to toughen up. You have to hide your feelings.

But I can't. I don't know how. I don't know how to lie. I don't know how to laugh at what you say and shrug it off when I'm dying on the inside. I don't know how to wear that mask and pretend what you say doesn't hurt me. I don't know how to ignore you. I don't know how to mock you or respond sarcastically or otherwise fend you off in order to protect myself. And the reason why is because I really don't think you mean it. I feel like if I just explained it to you, showed you how you're hurting me, proved to you why you are wrong, you would stop. If I just had the right words to tell you.

Because I honestly believe you're good. The bullies, the scary teachers, the ones who make me cry. I honestly think that if I was just able to find the right words to show you how you're wrong, you would stop. But that requires showing you that I'm hurt, not laughing or lying or pretending.

Sometimes I tell myself that you're ugly, that you're somehow deeply flawed or cruel or evil. But that's not the truth. The truth is that I think you are good and that's what scares me and disturbs me, that good people like you can do this to me and ignore me when I try to show you that it's wrong. That you really don't care that you've made me cry for the fourth day in a row, that you're terrifying me by yelling at me in front of the entire class.

So I need to be in control. I need to be able to block people out, to fend off people's words, to be able to act rather than react, to be able to choose how to respond to stimuli.

The problem with this is that I can't have both. If I want to be honest, I need to be in touch with my feelings and the way I naturally respond to situations. If I want to protect myself, then I have to be false. I can't switch emotions on and off as I so choose. The fact is, I feel things. This is not a choice. This is how I am.

So I crave control. But who am I kidding? I'm not in control. Not when it comes to what's important. That teacher who is busy telling the whole class that "you're not roses, you're dandelions?" I have to fight that. I have to tell him that we're all roses and it is cruel and unkind to claim that we are dandelions. But when I start this and he responds, my voice will immediately go all shaky with passion and anger because he's laughing and this isn't funny; this is something I take very seriously, and how can he sit there and laugh as though this were amusing? How is putting down an entire group of people amusing? Telling us that we're simply the dandelion spores that drift upon the wind, all of us alike, dotting the grass, rather than the gorgeous and beautiful unique rose? Yes, I take that seriously. You have no right. To tell me that. And put me down.

Now, what would be more effective? Of course it would be more effective to argue from logic rather than passion. To control one's emotions and one's voice, to seem unruffled, cool, calm, completely unperturbed. But I can't do it. I really can't do it. Because it's lying. It's not how I really feel or how I really am; at that moment in time I am so deeply disturbed that it comes across in everything I do or say, my voice, my actions, my very look shows this. And I don't think I should have to pretend. Even if it is more effective.

This is how it is for me:
    He lifts his head, holding himself tight. Control. Control is all. He tries to clamp his throat shut over it, to stifle the sound, but he cannot and he begins to sob, a high, helpless coughing sound. There is no control any more, everything is lost, and his body heaves, drowning. His head is on his arms again, the smell of old wood in his nostrils, the warmth of his own breath against his face. (222)
I try. I try to keep my composure, to keep control. Try not to get upset, certainly not to show I am upset. My voice betrays me. My voice becomes shaky and I can feel that I am blushing, that I am red with anger. And he laughs. Oh, he laughs at me. My teacher laughs. Or screams, alternatively. How to respond to this? What to do? I have to say this, to protest this. It's not just for me, though part of it definitely is. But it's for everyone else in that class who feels the same way I do and can't say it. And I know you're there.

I have no control over how they make me feel, and that is the ultimate shame and the ultimate humiliation. That I can't act in a detached manner. I'm not able to choose when and when not to feel, unless I completely block something out, completely remove myself from a situation. And the reason for that is also in Ordinary People:
    "I can't help it," he says. "It hurts too much to be around you." (182)
Yes, sometimes it does. It hurts too much to actually understand and take in a situation, so I remove myself from it. I block it off. This is my method of control. I can't deal with this every single day. I would get sick. So I don't.

There is a flip side to this. The flip side is the way I understand joy. Anything joyous, anything wonderful, I feel with an intensity that others usually do not understand. I am very alive. I revel in those moments. Those are mine. Those make up for everything else. That joy suffuses me in the same way that pain can consume me.

I know that I need to stop fighting this. I have to achieve a kind of balance. A way where I am somewhat in control so that other people do not dictate the way in which I behave, and I do not merely react to them but am able to choose how to respond. At the same time, I do not know how to go about it. How to draw this line. And I also need to admit that I can't control everything. I can't control God. I can't control the actions of others. In fact, I can't always control my own feelings and thoughts, though that is where I can really work on this. I have more control over myself than over the people around me. The only thing I can do is work on how I respond to situations. Everything else is beyond me, much as I don't want it to be.

I also need to ease off on this sense of trying to understand everything and simplify it, of punishment and guilt. I have some kind of equation in my head; if I do things right, everything will be okay. Do things wrong and this is your fault. You will be punished. And if you're not punished, punish yourself somehow. Nothing overly dramatic, no razor blades or binging or fasting. But deny yourself something you want. Put yourself in a position where your parents will punish you, do this deliberately (don't let them know you're doing it.) It will make you feel better. As though you have some control over the situation. I did it wrong. It's my fault. I've been punished. Okay, my equation works.

But what if there is no equation? What if there is no reason I can understand, what if it's really completely beyond me? What if it's nobody's fault? What if something happened because it happened? What if things just are?

What if the world just is?

Why is this such a scary concept for me?

I think it is because I prefer something understandable and simple. I prefer to think action a leads to result b which leads to consequence c. This means that my choices determine what is to follow. And sometimes that does work. But more often, it doesn't.

I don't like the idea that I can't understand everything. That I can't know everything. That my intellect is fallible.

But okay. Let's try this.

Chana, you don't understand everything. You're not able to. This isn't something that's wrong with you. It's simply something that is. Now enjoy that. That not everything has to be on you. You don't have to take care of everything, fix everything. This is not all your personal burden or problem. Some of this just is. And it's scary that you can't control everything. But isn't it also freeing? You have the freedom to accept that some things are beyond you.

Or as Dr. Berger of Ordinary People would say, "I'd better tell you. I'm not big on control. I prefer things fluid. In motion." (43)

As a side note, isn't it strange how it's hard to be nice to ourselves?


Anonymous said...

Looks like someones up late, trapped in thought :)

Chana, your honosty about your feelings is almost shocking.
And I think it is your biggest strength. The fact that you are able to analyze your thoughts, pick them apart, realize possible flaws, and do your best to tell yourself of another way to think about things is incredible and beautiful.
It reminds me of an earlier post you wrote entitled "What Comes Naturally". We all deserve the most credit, not for doing what comes naturally to us, but for doing what is unnatural to us. You have certain "natural" ideas about control, yet in this post, you seem to realize what is perhaps problematic about these ideas, and you acutually tell yourself to think in a different way, yet in a way that is so counterintuitive to you.
I know how uncomfortable "thought-changing" can be. Kol Hakavod to you.

Anonymous said...

OK you have addicted me to the blogging world. For interesting reading on this topic of control, I suggest you read Rav Soloveitchik's article "Catharsis," which I believe was written for Tradition. I'm not sure where it can be found in print right now. I admit that I did not just reread the article before recommending it to you but at least my impression/memory of what I read of it in a class on the Rav's philosophy addresses the issue of man's need for control. It may be that some of the connections that I draw are based not on the article itself but on the discussions I have had about it. Anyway, you might find it interesting.

Scraps said...

Wow...brutal honesty, all the way. You don't even need to tell us that you're no good at lying and pretending; if you were, you'd never be able to put such harsh personal stuff about yourself out there on the web for all to see.

I can understand the need for control, though in my own life I don't take it to quite the same extreme. The problem is, that after awhile, the need to be in control turns around and begins to control you. It consumes you, and that way lies madness...we will only be free when we can understand that not everything in life is under our control. We relinquish our illusion of control to G-d, and leave Him to take care of His world.

There is a difference between relinquishing control and abdicating responsibility, however.

Anonymous said...

"The only thing I can do is work on how I respond to situations. Everything else is beyond me, much as I don't want it to be.?"

Hakol Bigday Shamayim Chutz m'Yirat Shamayim. Big realization to come to on your own.

Just be careful of learning Ishbitz where you discover that really Hakol Bigday Shamayim Afilu Yirat Shamayim. That's a scary place to be in. Good thing we live in a world from the perspective of man, we still have our Yirat Shamayim...

Purim Hero