Control is Just an Illusion, Friend.

Lots of people sneer at the Control Freak archetype. I do not understand these people. They seem to think loss of control would be a good time—like a roller coaster, perhaps, which is actually a tightly controlled construct when functioning correctly and not killing people. Also people choose whether or not to get on the thing, thereby exercising control; so this is not the best illustration, though I see it used a lot.

Loss of control is not an amusement park ride, friend. It is death, dismemberment, famine, enmity, destruction, financial loss, and horrifying social situations that make you wish to God you’d stayed home with a cat on your lap instead of venturing into the greater world. It is falling asleep at the wheel and having the trailer of a semi sheer off the top of your car, along with your head. It is coming home from vacation to find one of the last of your child’s unexpected litter of gerbils dead in the cage because they started fighting and the house-sitters couldn’t spare the time to make a damn phone call to ask you what to do. The root of the desire for control is fear. And fear in this world is not without cause.

My own usual response to fear is to put a lot of energy into creating an airtight system that eliminates risk. But this is not without cost. Go too far with this sort of thing and you will find yourself desiring secrecy even when there’s no need for it. You’ll want to check things all the time and make sure all is well. You’ll suppress emotion, because emotion must be regulated by reason in order for the system to function, and then when it’s time for emotion to have its say, you won’t be able to find it.

I don’t really have a grip on this problem. I honestly don’t. I believe it is right for reason to regulate emotion, for cause and effect to be understood and managed, and for risk to be taken seriously. But I have lived forty-four years, and I see now that I have feared too much and modeled some not-so-healthy behaviors to my kids. I’ve been too quick to circle the wagons when things got rough. There were friendships I didn’t nurture, hospitality I didn’t show, and unasked-for advice I didn’t give but should have. I meant well. I wanted to keep from making mistakes. But fear of making mistakes can lead to sins of omission. “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).

The sad irony is that the point of control is to protect something, but too much control is destructive. To eliminate all risk is to smother life itself.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” That’s our friend C.S. Lewis talking, and he knew.

The assumption behind a preoccupation with control is that I can in fact control everything, that it all depends on me. To this unspeakable hubris I can only plead guilty.

And therein lies the system’s flaw. I can’t control everything, and even if I could control half the things I’d like to control, I wouldn’t have the wisdom to manage them properly. That’s how supervillains are made.

Three nights ago, I saw Frozen with my youngest child. This is a story about a princess, Elsa, who has the power to create ice at will and sculpt it into whatever formations she chooses—crystals, pillars, flurries, drifts. Her creations are beautiful, and great fun for Elsa and her younger sister, Anna.

But as the opening song warns, ice is beautiful! powerful! dangerous! cold! Elsa loses control over her power and hurts Anna. The aftermath is a nightmare of shock, trauma, fear, and guilt. Elsa’s parents sternly warn her that this must never happen again. From that day forward, Elsa’s life is terribly altered.


The words fear, love, power, and control all occur in the opening song, and these forces dominate the story. Power carries risk; risk leads to fear; and the response to fear is to try to exercise more control. After Anna’s accident, Elsa focuses all her energy into maintaining control over her power. Because the manifestations have emotional triggers, this involves severe emotional suppression. Her efforts leave her mentally exhausted and socially isolated. Worst of all, Anna, formerly her closest companion, has had her memory wiped of the knowledge of Elsa’s power, leaving her confused and hurt by her sister’s rejection. So a construct designed to keep Anna from being hurt just ends up hurting her in a different way.

Eventually things come to a head, as they are wont to do in Disney movies and in life. After Elsa loses control again and unwittingly freezes the entire kingdom, she flees to a mountain where she thinks she can do no further damage. But Anna follows, refusing to be kept at bay any longer. Cornered and pressured, Elsa struggles to maintain control; but in trying to stifle her emotion, she only warps it, and it breaks out in unwanted and terrifying manifestations. The more she panics, the worse things get.

Watching Elsa’s frantic and futile efforts, I thought, This is exactly like living by the law. Legalism is all about damage control. It can never produce any active good, despite what those who live by it think. It seeks to quell sin, but it only produces rebellion.

Control proves a failure, and Anna is hurt again, this time apparently fatally. Only then does Elsa learn that the true protection, the only force capable of managing her potentially deadly power, is not control at all, but love.

This changes everything. Anna is healed, the kingdom is restored, and Elsa’s entire existence blossoms into a thing of glorious possibility. Transformations abound: death into life, conformity into freedom, fear into love. Elsa is able to not only be near people again, but to relax, to laugh, to play.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

I don’t mean to be flippant by quoting the apostle John in connection with a Disney movie. To be clear, John is speaking of the very reasonable fear of a just judgment–a guilty fear, not the fear of ordinary pain or loss. And the perfect love that’s capable of casting out that fear is the love of God demonstrated in Christ’s propitiation. This is wonderful news for the world, and my friend Jim gives an excellent treatment of the subject here.

But I think I do not go too far in saying that fear, when brooded over too long by an overstimulated mind, is the enemy of love. It cripples relationships, poisons joy, steals hope, and confuses emotion to the point where you honestly don’t know what you feel.

So what is the solution? Some sort of let-love-have-its-way scenario? Bursting into song and dance on a mountaintop like a Disney princess? Maybe it’s just recognizing that the supreme level of control sought by those of “freak” status is just an illusion anyway. Terrible things will happen, despite your best efforts to secure yourself against all shock and alarm. You will be blindsided–if not by the thing you’re guarding against, then by something else. That’s what “blindsided” means: you don’t see it coming. And the energy you’re spending on maintaining a defensive system would be better spent on loving the people around you before they’re taken, which they most certainly will be at some point unless you’re taken from them first. Yes, it’s risky. But it’s worth it. They’re worth it. They’re worth the fear and discomfort and uncertainty and vulnerability–wonderfully worth all this and more.

I Don’t Like Bullies; I Don’t Care Where They Come From.

We all know about the types of dreams that are pretty much common to mankind. The Naked-In-Public Dream. The Alligators-Circling-The-House Dream. The Back-In-College-With-Finals-Looming Dream. The Something-Is-Chasing-You-But-You-Can’t-Run-Away Dream. Actually I’ve never had that last one, though it seems to be the most common of all. But one dream I do often have that hasn’t made the list is the Bully-Confrontation Dream.

I had one of these last night. I was in a department store with my youngest daughter and a big group of her friends. One boy started physically dragging Emilie to a different part of the store, ignoring her protests that she wanted to stop and try on some cute pajama pants and T-shirts. I made him let go of her, then shoulder-bumped him and generally talked him down until he went away. So far, so good.

But that was only the beginning.

Emilie chose some stuff to try on, but she was hesitant to use a fitting room because there was some sort of complicated procedure involved (as usual, the dream left the details vague) and she was worried about whether she’d be able to return the garments to their proper places after trying them on. I told her to just go for it and leave the things she didn’t want at the rack that’s usually provided for this purpose. Then an aggressive woman completely unknown to me butted in and started telling me about the proper use of the fitting room. Her manner was repellant, her facial expression was borderline psycho, and I didn’t care for her interference, so I told her to buzz off. In response she grew even more aggressive and started invading my personal space. So I grabbed her finger, bent it backwards, put her in a wrist-lock, and calmly walked her away from my daughter.

Turned out the woman wasn’t some random busybody but an actual store employee. She soon returned with another employee even taller and more physically imposing than herself. Both women had strong facial features and big hair and were dressed alike in disturbing yellow-and-white polka-dot outfits. Both were maniacally insistent about the complicated fitting room procedure. It was all very annoying and intrusive. All I wanted was for my daughter to be able to go in, try on some clothes, and walk out again.

Then the women told me about the cameras in the fitting rooms. The idea was that once a store patron got her outfit on, she would pose for a picture, which would presumably end up on the store website. My daughter was expected to comply with this procedure.

I was so stunned by the idea of a high-resolution webcam in a fitting room that it took me a moment of horrified silence to amp up my indignation to the next level. During this interval I woke, charged with adrenaline and about ready to punch someone, and realized it was all a dream. I had a good laugh at myself.

My bullying dreams follow a certain pattern. Someone makes an unreasonable demand or imposition, and I confront him head-on with superior reasoning and/or physical force. The overall feel of the dream is positive. I’m confident that I will succeed and I do. I am heightened and alert but calm, never fearful.

I think the reason these dreams are so common for me is that in recent years I’ve become preoccupied with the whole concept of intimidation, by which I mean that process by which people try to get their way with you when they really have no true power over you, whether of authority or superior physical force or even moral rectitude. But they act as if they do. Maybe he’s physically bigger; maybe he has a well-honed sarcastic tongue or an insolent gaze. Maybe she’s a pseudo-intellectual with a knack for tossing out big words and specious arguments, and people are afraid to challenge her because they don’t want to look stupid. I’ve even met spiritual bullies who couch their own opinions in Bible quotes and religious slogans, putting anyone who disagrees with them in the position defying God himself. It’s all a big bluff on the order of the emperor’s new clothes. And most of the time it works.

Bullies of all sorts are used to coercing others without ever having to make good on their implied threats. When you refuse to give in, when you look them levelly in the eye and cordially invite them to bring it, they really don’t know what to do but escalate—loom a little taller, talk a little rougher, bring out some even bigger words. If you again refuse to give in, they will again escalate their intimidation routine. By now things are getting uncomfortable. People are starting to look. And you may feel that by continuing to stand your ground, you are being a jerk. Bullies know this and will use it to their advantage, projecting their own blameworthiness onto you in a sort of “look what you made me do” scenario. But you weren’t the one who brought things to this level, and you’re not in the wrong for refusing to cave.

A few bullies may actually have the wherewithal to deliver a sock to the jaw or a really sound argument or whatever, but I suspect the number of those who do this is far smaller than commonly supposed. People who can deliver don’t generally make a lot of noise about it. I find that intellectual bullies in particular aren’t really all that smart. They’ve learned a few tricks of expression and some Nietzsche quotes, and that’s about it. Dare to poke a finger at their façade and you’ll find it’s about as thick as tissue paper.

“Do you want to kill Nazis?” Dr. Abraham Erskine asks Steve Rogers in CaptainAmerica: The First Avenger.

“I don’t want to kill anybody,” Steve replies. “I don’t like bullies; I don’t care where they’re from.” Neither do I.

Zero Tolerance. Because Catchy Phrases Are Way More Important Than Stuff Like “Justice.”

Some years back, a man I know—we’ll call him “my husband”—had a run-in with a coworker. It wasn’t a little personality clash; the other party was violating company protocol and trying to get away with it. My husband called him on it and didn’t back down.

An unpleasant scene followed, and after the dust had settled a manager was dispatched to investigate. Greg maintained that he’d been in the right. But management isn’t comfortable with the concepts of “right” and “wrong”—even, bafflingly enough, in regards to defending company protocol. It likes to spread blame around evenly, like so much Nutella on a slice of bread, and hold all parties responsible for keeping the peace. This is called empowerment.

“It takes two hands to clap!” the manager said to my husband. He then perkily clapped his own hands, twice, in my husband’s face.

Yeah, well, it takes only one hand to smack someone upside the head, Mister Manager, and that’s what happened in this particular conflict.

There’s an idea afoot that being involved in any conflict makes you guilty—even if all you did was stand there and get attacked. This is the same jaw-dropping idiocy behind zero-tolerance policies that punish kids for defending themselves at school. It’s also behind the manager-speak spoken to my husband that day. The company had a policy that if an employee assaulted another employee, both would automatically be terminated–and the policy is by no means unique to that particular company. Someone attacked you at work? Well then, you obviously deserved it. Who can argue with that logic?

We can all agree that some conflicts simply aren’t worth pursuing. Sometimes an honest cost-benefits analysis shows it’s better to walk away, to let it go with a smile or even a cold, silent glance. But there are other times when that just won’t work—times when standing down makes you complicit in bigotry, cruelty, larceny, or other serious jerkdom. Maintaining the peace at such a time is tantamount to cowardice.

But decent people find conflict unpleasant. Standing our ground, even when it’s the right thing to do, makes us feel bad. Self-doubt whispers at us, asking whether we could have prevented things from coming to this pass. It’s certainly a possibility worth considering. A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger (Proverbs 15:1). But there are times when a soft answer simply will not suffice. You can reason, you can sympathize, you can cajole, but you can only do so much. Ultimately you cannot climb into the cockpit of another person’s soul.

So how do you tell the difference? There are few hard and fast guidelines, but a functioning conscience backed by moral courage and genuine regard for fellow human beings is quite capable of sorting things out. My concern is that our culture often denies the very possibility of the line in the sand. There’s also a disturbing tendency to urge the more reasonable person in the conflict to be more tolerant. In other contexts, this is called blaming the victim.

“Gentlemen may cry ‘Peace, peace,’” said Patrick Henry, “but there is no peace.” No, not when a hostile force is bringing war to your doorstep.

I’d like to end this on less of a downer, but I’m not sure how, except to say that God cares about justice—and so do most human beings, in spite of the organized efforts of misguided authority to make the whole concept go away. The fight may feel like a lonely one, especially at first, but I’ve observed that once the first brave individual makes his stand, others will often find their courage and follow. So take heart, and remember that justice is worth defending. In a culture where justice is not honored, mercy is emptied of meaning and power.