Posts Tagged ‘control’

One of the most amazing capabilities of the human mind is the imagination. However, this great ability brings certain difficulties, not least of which is being able to imagine our own mortality. It’s this existential fear which underlies most, if not all, other specific fears. Whilst very few people actually believe it’s possible to escape death, most of us find it difficult to face the reality of our own mortality. We seem to have no control over such significant events as our own birth or death. The apparent randomness and chaos of the universe has driven human beings to pursue ways of living which enable them to cope with all the daily uncertainties which arise. Over the course of several hundred years we have moved from strategies based on beliefs in supernatural forces which are in control of everything to ones based on beliefs that human beings can be in control of everything. In effect, we’ve seen the decline of religion’s power to give a sense of things being in control and a rise in the belief that science endows humans with such power.
In many cultures the supernatural forces in control of everything are not necessarily benevolent, and even when they are considered to be benevolent their actions are still not predictable. In attempts to assuage the feelings of fear and uncertainty rituals and sacrifices were created to try to influence the actions of the gods. Even with the emergence of monotheistic religions based on a belief in a loving Creator God, human beings were still not able to predict His actions. At best, a Christian, Jew or Muslim, finds peace of mind by letting go of the pursuit of predictability and certainty by trusting that God is benevolent and all will not only be well, but all that happens is, as God wishes, the best for us. Fundamentalists of all flavours, however, do not seem comfortable to leave Life and the World to God, but instead feel driven to impose strict behaviours and even thought patterns on believers and non-believers alike.
With the Renaissance and the developments of rationalism and the “scientific method”, human beings began to believe they could develop deep understandings of life and the universe. We began to use observations, logic and experiment to create “laws” based on highly predictable patterns. We have pursued this path relentlessly for the last 400 years. This shift in focus from the supernatural to the natural has, however, been focused on the same goal – the minimisation of uncertainty, and the parallel maximisation of feelings of control. Physicists still pursue the “theory of everything” in an attempt to use that understanding to control everything.
But control is still beyond our grasp. We are still mortal. None of us can know the exact span of our lives in advance and we find we can neither control ourselves nor others. We can neither predict nor determine the future, at any level – individual, communal or global. At an individual level we drive away the fear of chaos and unpredictability by settling into routines and rituals. One of my favourite novels of all time is “Rituals”, by Cees Nooteboom, (ISBN 1-86046-048-8), a story of a father and son who each have their powerful (and constraining) ways of imposing their personal power on their own lives through ritual, in the father’s case, through a strict set of time set routines which establish the value of punctuality as the highest of all his values, and in the son, through his fascination with Japanese pottery, and the tea ceremony. We all need routines and rhythms to our lives but when the need for control dominates these routines can become obsessions and compulsions, limiting our lives instead of stimulating growth.
At the communal level we seem to be moving fast towards George Orwell’s nightmare “1984” vision of increasing surveillance and attempts to control “unhealthy behaviours” whilst experiencing increasing levels of chronic disease and crime. A day or two after I started to write this post I read a review of Jim Jarmusch’s new movie “Limits of Control” where the author cited an essay by William Burroughs as the source of the movie’s title.  (see “how to make a zombie” )
In recent years governments have acted as if they have the power to control global phenomena when all they have is actually the power to make an impact. The consequences of each action, of each impact, turn out to be both unpredictable and uncontrollable. We see this in War (Iraq, Afghanistan etc); we see it in the economy (credit crunch, “boom and bust” cycles, the fall of the “Masters of the Universe”); we see it in climate change; we see it in rising levels of crime, drug abuse, and chronic disease.
Control is a delusion.
It was a delusion when human beings thought they could influence supernatural forces and it remains a delusion when human beings think they can control individual, social or global phenomena.
It’s frightening to be “out of control”. Yet, the relentless pursuit of more control just creates more and more anxiety as at our deepest levels we realise control continuously escapes our grasp. A greater risk from this control agenda is that we create ever more zombies, and lose our chance to become ever more human.
It’s time for a new direction. We have to replace the pursuit of control with something else. Something more real, and, therefore, something more to likely support human life, and to encourage development.
What might the new direction be?  A shift from increasing control to increasing resilience. Letting go of the pursuit of certainty and relishing the experience of the present, the wonder of life and the excitement of creation. Moving towards an agenda of adaptability and sustainability, of quality over quantity. Pursuing diversity instead of standardisation and valuing continual, dynamic experience over goals and outcomes.

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