The Loss of Control

We are most deeply asleep at the switch when we fancy we control any switches at all.
--Annie Dillard

Life is an illusion," the notorious World War I double agent Mata Hari confessed in 1917, as her eyes met a French firing squad. You know what they say about confessions on the way out: it's the truth whether you believe it or not. Certainly Mata Hari lived the ultimate illusion. She was all things to all men, at least until she gave herself away by assuming she had it all under control. First she seduced French officers into divulging military secrets that she passed along to the Germans. Then she cajoled the Germans into giving her information coveted by the French. But the trouble with illusion, as the former femme fatale discovered to her regret, is that you can't keep it up forever. Eventually it all goes up in a puff of smoke, and you might not be left standing when the smoke clears.

Illusions are the conscious mind's double agents. The ego doesn't like to think that anybody - especially the authentic self - can do it better than [ego] can. So [ego] seduces the rational mind into believing those things that help us make it through the day - that this time they'll stop drinking, that the kid's just going through a phase, that the argument's over money and not power, that the unworkable will work, if you just try a little harder. Now, maybe all of this is true. But if it's not, you're setting yourself up for the double-cross. When that subterfuge succeeds, the master illusion - the mind's Mata Hari - moves in for the kill, convincing you that life can be manipulated.

Life can't. But we can. A few weeks go smoothly, at home and work, and suddenly we secretly succumb to the lure of thinking we can control relationships or the course of events. We line everything up in perfect order so that, through sheer force of will, we'll be at the right place at the right time. But when we become addicted to thinking we can control another person's behavior or a particular outcome, we're as vulnerable as a crack addict who thinks this hit will be her last. High on determination, we assume we can handle the day, the deal, the deadline, the divorce, the disease, if we can just keep everything under control. When we can't, we spin dangerously out of control and into a nosedive. As Melanie Beattie reminds us in The Language of Letting Go: "Whatever we try to control does have control over us and our life."

And while we might walk away from the wreck, we're often more upset by the loss of the illusion than by the reality of the rubble. The good news is that we can pick up the pieces and salvage the best of a bad situation, but only after we become aware that we have unconsciously betrayed ourselves.

You can never lose something if you never had it to begin with. You were never in control and you never will be. Let go of that illusion so that you can cut your losses and move on. Acceptance of the inevitable - as difficult and painful it might be today - is the first step toward an authentic trade-off. "We trade a life that we have tried to control," Melodie Beattie reassures us, "and we receive in return something better - a life that is manageable."

-Sarah Ban Breathnach, Simple Abundance - A Daybook of Comfort and Joy © 1995

This was a most difficult lesson for me to learn. I looked to parents, spouses, family members and friends to provide peace and stability in my life. I tried to control them and the situations I found myself in, and did a lousy job of all of it. When things were sorta o.k., you know, when nobody was on my case about anything, and I could get by, I almost believed that I had control of the situation, or the person, or of my life. When it all began to fall apart - first little but noticeable crumblings, then wholesale can't-miss-em washouts - that is when I realized that I was not only not in control, but that my whole life was, like, WAY out of control. I didn't like the feeling. It was an illusion, either way. I had been doing that for a long time, and I needed a freight train sized something in my life to make that clear to me. Major butt-kickings usually get our attention, don't they?

Mine came in the form of Mom's passing. After removal of one eye, she had been cancer-free, or so we thought, for 5 years. Now, suddenly, she was diagnosed with inoperable brain tumors, and the family was told it was only a matter of time before we would lose her. I made the most of the time I had left with her, as much as I was able, then. But I realized that I was definitely out of control of things, and that my life needed some serious changes. My own mortality was then considered, and where I was in my life. I was not at all pleased with the answer to the question. Life had moved in for the kill, and Mom wasn't the only one in its sights.

Things outside of us don't hold the key to success or happiness. And, according to Melodie Beattie, "even if we could control things and people, even if we got what we wanted, we would still be ourselves. Our emotional state would still be in turmoil." Control of people or things does not stop our pain. After becoming peaceful, trusting and accepting, what we need in our life comes to us - with ease and naturalness. Let the world go, and it really does keep on spinning, the sun continues to rise, and all goes on just as it did before. Without our help.

I watched Mom go through the process of first anger, then denial and finally acceptance of her situation. She ended her life with dignity, surrounded by those who love her, at peace with herself and her God. What I learned, more than any other lesson I had ever learned at her hand, was "Let go of the illusion."



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