Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Confession No.2: I'm hard to pick as a control freak

When I told two of the people who know me best about my last blog post, they independently said exactly the same thing, “But you’re not a control freak.”

All right, I was exaggerating for comic effect. And admittedly, I was misrepresenting my own most characteristic tactics. When I feel the need for control, I’m more likely to withdraw than to try to make other people do what I want – not a move that normally invites the label “control freak” (though maybe it should).

I’m happy to take responsibility for myself, but wielding influence over other people is something that makes me nervous. In the past, I have tended to think of this in all or nothing terms – either I exert no significant influence on others, and attract no responsibility for their decisions, or I get involved and attract a scary level of responsibility if anything goes wrong. It’s taken me quite a while to see that responsibility can truly be shared and experienced as something that connects me to others in a positive or forgiving way, rather than as something which always tends to isolate the individual – either exalting the ego or crushing it.

While the story behind my relationship to responsibility no doubt has aspects peculiar to me, I think this way of interpreting responsibility is not uncommon. It relates to the dominance of the concept of “the person” in modern Western ways of understanding all kinds of responsibility. As I've pointed out before, even in situations that are clearly collective, like wars or climate change, in the West we think predominantly in terms of personal rather than collective responsibility.

The dominance of the concept of personal responsibility goes some way to explaining why otherwise sociable, reasonable people often react to calls for responsibility by behaving like “control freaks,” whether of the visible or invisible, withdrawing kind. And maybe the reverse is true, too: because we are living in a time during which the rate of change is unprecedented, and at the same time technological progress has increased our expectations of being able to control our environment, it’s easy to feel that things are getting out of control. One way of dealing with this is to impose the concept of personal responsibility to create a comforting illusion of control and moral order. But this sense of security comes at a high price, since in the process individuals are likely to be scapegoated or to flee responsibility for fear of being singled out and blamed when things go wrong. (John Locke was the first philosopher to define personal identity. He described “person” as a forensic term...)

It’s a vicious circle: overuse of the concept of personal responsibility feeds anxiety about individual control, and anxiety about individual control leads to overuse (or abuse) of the concept of personal responsibility.

How to think and feel differently?

Recently I came across a quote from Yeats' poem 'The Second Coming':

“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold…

The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
Are full of passionate intensity.”

These memorable lines suggest that in situations of crisis, when things are falling apart, and individuals feel they must do what they can to maintain some sense of control, the wise tend to abandon ship, while the foolish desperately attempt to take charge.

In more settled times, convictions can be held without fanaticism, and intensity of commitment or social involvement need not be driven by blind passion, but by enlightened vision. But even when society – or one’s own life - is in upheaval, surely there are alternatives to self-protective withdrawal, or violent attempts to take control. I’d like to think it is possible to weather the storms of change and live with insecurity by keeping our convictions flexible enough not to break, and cultivating a dispassionate intensity. By this, I mean an ability to stay awake to the intensity of the times, to the people around us and to our own experience, without letting it sweep us into the turmoil of destructive passions.

Open-minded conviction, dispassionate intensity. I’m hoping that these paradoxes will help me navigate the challenges of spending three months in a Buddhist monastery, an environment which will strip me of many of the props that usually give me a sense of mastery over my life. This is another correction to the flippancy of my last post. It’s not because I’m out of control that I’ve decided to go to the monastery, but rather because I feel ready to relinquish some personal control and see what happens.

One of the props to go will be this weekly blog, but I expect I’ll be back in mid to late October to let you know a little of what has happened to me by then.

In the meantime, my mother has a painting exhibition on in August, so if you’re in Sydney, please go along and feel free to post your responses to her art works as comments on this blog (go on, she’d love it).

Click on this image for a clearer view

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Confession of a control freak

I remember once causing a boyfriend of mine a moment of astonishment by describing myself as a bit of a control freak. “You’re aware of that?” he said.

This was years ago. My awareness of my tendency to try to control things, including situations that are not even slightly my responsibility to control, or amenable to control by anyone, has not, strange to say, reduced the tendency - or not noticeably. Maybe this is because I haven’t fully allowed myself to notice how much anguish I cause myself, or how much annoyance I cause to other people, by trying to take charge in situations that patently do not call for my direction. When I notice it, I even find this tendency of mine quite amusing (clearly reform is still some way off).

Recently I caught myself maneuvering to become a leading light and determining authority in relation to a group project that a friend is involved in, a project that he has not invited me to join or even influence in any substantial way. The observation gave me a good laugh. I could see that my behavior was verging on the ridiculous, largely futile, and counter-productive in terms of establishing a harmonious relationship with the person in question, which is something I would very much like to do. 

And yet this impulse to impose my will is not something that I can honestly say I wish to renounce. Maybe that’s why I like Nietzsche so much. He proposed that all of life can be analysed in terms of will to power. For him, will to power is not something you can renounce. At most you can mask it.

The thing that really made me laugh when I admitted to myself what I had been up to, was how pious and earnest a mask I had used to achieve my limited success (if a project so perverse can be said to involve success). I had spoken of loving-kindness, compassion, understanding, commitment to peace. So eloquent did I wax that I temporarily blinded myself to the little jabs I was making, through the use of these very words, at my target’s authority. He, however, soon showed signs of feeling these pin-pricks and stopped responding to my advancing plans to rework the project. At this point, I contented myself with discussing my fantastical schemes with a few third parties. The creativity involved in this last bit was enjoyable, and may yet lead to something productive, but on reflection, the whole episode provides clear evidence of a fairly urgent need to take myself in hand. It is fairly obvious that my desire to control things that are not mine to control is linked to the fact that I am out of control.

I am a control freak and I am out of control. It’s not a good combination. So serious has this situation become that I have lately been feeling a desire for incarceration. I’m not joking. I yearn for severe constraints, austere conditions and a regular timetable. So, since my will to power has not yet taken criminal form, I have booked myself into a Buddhist monastery for a three month retreat, starting in about ten days time.

What will happen in there? I’m hoping that in this restricted environment, I will be presented with such limited opportunities to control other people that my frustrated need for control will turn inwards. I’ll bring all my will to power to bear on the task of directing myself. Pretty soon, instead of other people getting annoyed with me, I expect I’ll be the one telling myself to kindly piss off. And then maybe I’ll get so sick of my control freak antics that I'll stop finding them amusing, and actually change.

Of course the other possibility is that in three months time, my spiritual progress will be no further advanced, but I will have made a bid to oust the Abbot from power and (I know this is ambitious) install myself as the first lay Abbess of a Buddhist monastery.