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


Peter said...

Wouldn't Thomas Merton have loved the prospect of being in the monastery AND keeping a blog !

Maybe the monastic community (of whatever label)is an expression of collective responsibility on the part if those living there - as Merton wrote (in rather over-inflated prose) of his first visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani:

"I had wondered what was holding this country together, what has been keeping the universe from cracking in pieces and falling apart. It is this monastery - if only this one." (April 7, 1941)

Enjoy your sojourn in the cell !

paul r said...

Keeping a blog in a monastery seems common these days. My favourite is the one kept by Rev. Mugo, a female disciple and Dharma Heir of the late Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, ordained in 1981 at Shasta Abbey California.

She follows the Soto Zen meditation tradition within the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. Her blog is at:


Juzzeau said...

Thanks Paul for the link to Rev. Mugo's blog - wonderful.

And thanks Peter for your comment - great quote from Merton. I'll do my best to keep Australia together for the next few months :)