(Part 2 can be found here)
The Role of Fear
Take a moment now and recall the experience of feeling out of control … realizing you have no influence … recognizing that what will happen depends mostly on luck, that you have no personal control over what will occur … that you will just have to wait and see what fate brings to your doorstep.
Why do we all seem, innately, to fear what we call “loss of control”? What is so disconcerting to realize that, we may, sometimes, have degrees of influence, but can rarely force an event, or person, or relationship to be what we want it to be if there is any resistance.
The first, and natural, reason is because we are programmed to try to survive. All life is programmed to survive. Survival must be long enough in duration for the creature to produce a copy of itself. It must avoid death until its first re-creation can occur. Then, its primary purpose completed, the organism continues to eat, sleep and procreate until its functions weaken and it stops living … or it is eaten by something else in need of food so that it can also survive and procreate. The energy transformed through eating, and then redistributed through elimination, is the currency of Life, the continuous feast of exchange that powers the activity of all Living. To survive, the organism has to negotiate its environment, the supports and the dangers. To protect itself it is born with programmed strategies to increase its chances of a favorable outcome, moment to moment, for as long as possible. Does it have control, mastery, absolute power over the dangers in its surroundings? Of course not. It must depend on its built-in strengths and a great deal of luck. In fact, Nature overproduces the amount of new life because of the astronomical attrition rate. Just like the one sperm in millions that fertilizes the egg, only a few of the vast many survive to adulthood and breeding capacity.
As we have bodies, and our bodies are animals, this built-in survival program comes also with our original programming. Our autonomic-nervous-system produces hormones that activate or relax our animal-body so that it has the necessary energy to fight, flee or relax as the situation requires. Of course, we would want to control the degree of threat and maximize pleasurable experiences for our body. “No means no”! “Yes. Scratch a bit to the left, please.”
If our body functions properly, we can make it move where we want to go, to carry us around the landscape and perform tasks, with its hands, arms, legs, that we, our mind, wishes to accomplish. We can “control” our movements dependent on our strength, co-ordination and physical training. But then, there are times this is less so, i.e. when tired, distracted, weak, clumsy, ill. For many of us, our body will, at some time, break a bone, have an organ malfunction, have a stroke. Then, where is our “control”? How could I have controlled my body before and now I cannot control it? What has changed? Perhaps, I never actually controlled it, but rather influenced it to follow my wish. Perhaps my relationship with my body is not the master-servant arrangement I believe, but rather a symbiotic partnership between two very different entities intertwined with each other in order to become more through the bending than either can be by itself.
Try this experiment. Look at your arm. Silently, in your mind, say the word, “Rise”. What happens? Now, look at your arm and say aloud, “Rise”. What happens? Now, allow your arm to rise. How did that happen? Did you do it? If you say, “Yes, I made my arm rise”, then explain to yourself how your intention connected to your arm.
The origin of the word, “control” means to check or verify accounts. This original understanding suggests the quality of attentive, impartial observation, not the implication that the “controller” should tip the scales to force the accounts to be what is wished for. Over time, this word has transformed, as indicated by some of its synonyms: power, authority, command, mastery, supremacy, domination, regulation. It is this current transformation of the concept that we torment ourselves, and others, with today.
How does one obtain such power over others or over events or natural occurrences? Obviously, in relationships determined by fear, violence and intimidation, most will often choose the path of least resistance and fall into resentful or fearful compliance. This kind of control can be exercised over people … but, isn’t acquiescence still dependent on a surrender, a willing compliance, even if one is giving up in despair? History, both communal and personal, is filled with stories of those few who refused to submit and were either destroyed, escaped or formed a rebellion. So, the person with the capacity to use force only gains control through assent, even begrudged and compelled, whether it is given by an individual, a small group or an entire nation. Realizing that this type of control must be maintained by sufficient fear to sap any active resistance, this power possessor is always afraid of losing control, losing the ability to frighten and coerce others … pushing them to the point of having nothing else to lose. This produces a spiraling descent into more and more desperate measures to crush the soul and will of others to prevent them from rebellion or escape.
What about wishing to be able to control events which are not dependent on the activity and choices of people? If I have a machine I understand how to operate, I can control its functions … until it stops working. But it was designed for me to be able to control. It is not “natural”. What is left then but Nature and random luck? Can we control, totally “master”, random events to force them to obey our will? This was the hope of less technological cultures who prayed and sacrificed to the gods for fair weather, good crops, the destruction of their enemies. Perhaps if one’s tribe had a seer who could foretell events, better choices, better bets on the future, could sometimes be made. Many today retain private rituals or prayer or affirmation or good luck charms, so soothe and serve the same purpose. The activity of human-kind can alter climate and landscape, river channels can be dug to redirect the flow of water, but does this give us control over the seasons, storms, earthquakes, volcanos, tidal waves, the coming and going of comets, eclipses, falling meteors … or the unforeseen consequences of felling the forest or altering the river? Do we have protection from these phenomena or are we hoping to chance that we, personally, are not in the way when they manifest?
Well, what about “self-control”, total mastery, complete command of my moods, my thoughts, my reactions and impulses, likes and dislikes, habits? Do I never find thoughts or music in my head that I did not invite and do not welcome but that will not go away when commanded? Do I never fall into moods, get caught up in attitudes, have mixed feelings? Where is my control in the emotional-psychological realm? How easy is it for me to permanently change a habit by willing it so? I can, if I choose to, focus my attention for a time on something of my choice, but this effort needs to be continually maintained as attention is flighty and easily drifts. If I can’t even control my mind and moods, why am I even using this concept, this word, “control.”
Perhaps a more reasonable aim might be to acquire “influence.” Where the word “control” is hard, rigid, fixed, the word “influence” is softer, more liquid, more flowing. In fact, its origin from 14th century Medieval Latin is “influentia” meaning and emanation of power from the stars and from Latin, “influere” meaning to flow into.
Influence implies a connection, a channel between parties, where at least one of them is open to the emanations of the other. In allowing you to have influence with me, I am opening myself to your suggestions, ideas, motivations, because I respect you and value the emanations towards me from your inner world. I am hoping that by being open to you, you will in return be open to me, or I am afraid of the consequences if I don’t accept what you want of me. If I don’t value or trust you or want what you are offering, I am not open to your offers of influence and there is nothing you can do to force me without doing violence.
Influence seems much more realistic as an aim. I can try to cultivate influence. Everything and everybody is a part of one larger Whole. To one degree or another, everything and everyone is entangled in the web of existence. Can I flow with, flow through, people and events around me instead of trying to push, shove and steer the currents? Do I have the courage to just attempt to steer myself rather than try to force a resolution, to renounce the fantasy of security stimulated by the illusion that I can control life?
I am now reflecting back over my life. Were there any people (circumstances) who had absolute power over me? Of course, when I was a child, my parents, guardians and other adults could, potentially, do with me anything they wished as I was small, weak and without their mental, emotional and physical capacities We all start out this way. Whether our experience is wonderful, benign or negative, will be a strong factor in our attitude towards the goal of control. In particular, experiential negative qualities from childhood may increase a need to maximize a sense of influence, if not control, later in life. Or, instead, we may develop a defensive sense of futility to protect us from the pain and humiliation of crushed hope.
A number of years ago, I realized that if I had had a different personality, I would have experienced a different childhood, even with the same parents, siblings and outer structure. Why? Because different personality types tend to make different interpretations of the meaning of events. By nature, an accommodating type of personality, my experience with power, control and influence has been ambivalent. So, I ask you, dear reader, to imagine yourself with a different personality, more or less assertive, more or less risk taking, more or less inquisitive, more or less sensitive, more or less introverted or extroverted …. how would this change have influenced the way you have experienced life … and yourself? How might these differences have changed the way you relate to the wish for control or influence?
What, who, do I want to control? What can I control? What can I influence? Why do I feel authorized to make such efforts? For what reasons?
What can I take credit for? What do these “credits” get me? Do I store them in a vault? Do I cash them in? What is this credit currency? Who is the audience for my credit … others … myself?
What is the fear in my fear of not being in control? Is it fear of loss of prestige, personal or political power (is there a difference)? Is it fear of unwanted changes in my life pattern, in relationships? Do I believe I can ward off illness, aging, dying?
Where are such attempts useful and natural? Where are they invented and not part of nature?
To believe we can control, completely, continuously, correctly, without anything unexpected occurring is a delusion too far. We tend to deny that we have such fanciful, illusionary thinking. However, our reactions of hurt, surprise, disappointment, irritation that well up with the frustration of thwarted plans, reveal the reality of our subconscious hopes and fears and belie our rationalizations. Our reactions when things don’t work out as we wished, demonstrates a failure to recognize that nothing and no one happens in a vacuum. Everything is part of other systems larger and smaller, each of which is also entangled in other systems larger and smaller. To believe in ultimate, frictionless control is to fail to recognize that any attempt to control or influence occurs in a field connected with other fields. There are many other things in these fields than my agenda. When I move my attempt to control into a field, I meet everything and everyone, else there who may be unaware of, indifferent or hostile to my attempts. Every action brings an equal and opposite reaction. Whatever was neutral in the field before my effort began, may become active when touched by my effort. It must be accounted for. To believe in control over life is to deny that resistance is a natural part of the give and take of existence and will appear whenever touched by the pressure of an effort to change something.
The reality is that we did not create ourselves. We find ourselves awakening inside vulnerable biological bodies that will inevitably suffer from illness, injury, death. All the people we love and cherish and want to keep safe and with us forever … are living inside vulnerable, temporary bodies also. Each moment is on loan to us. There is no certainty other than fluctuations in pleasure and suffering and then eventual death. We all hang by a thread through each passing second. To find an attitude that will allow one to flow with the current of life, enjoying the joy and grieving the grief, without self-pity, self-recrimination, without anger or fear, would be to practice the art of living while allowing the river to carry to carry us to an unknown destination determined by whichever branch we have followed.
This, along with other postings included on this website are part of a book Written by Stephen Aronson entitled:
The Search For Meaning
The Mystery of Consciousness
A Psychologists Journey Through Gurdjieff and Jung
The book is currently in preparation for publication. We will let you know when it comes available.