Control: the Illusion, the Delusion, and Yo’ Self 

 Control: to exercise restraint or direction over; dominate; command; to eliminate or prevent the flourishing or spread of… 

If you’re a control freak/micro-manager/passive-aggressive manipulator, you’re not going to want to read this blog…but you probably will. Because–to turn those old Carly Simon lyrics a bit–you probably think this isn’t about you. But it kinda is.

In fact, it’s about most of us at some point in or area of our lives. Like, I control how the laundry gets sorted and folded in my house, how the fridge and pantry are organized, how the tea and coffee are made. Pretty benign stuff. BUT I have a strong, aching, unrequited desire to control how traffic flows, how institutions are run, and how online forms are handled. I can’t control those things, of course, and I must live with that. (Ahem, if anyone out there would like my input on any of the above…)

Control “freakness” over laundry procedures or kitchen arrangement is fairly harmless, as long as it’s in your domain and not your neighbor’s/sister’s/random stranger’s domain. It’s when you project your preferences–overtly or passive-aggressively–into a shared space or someone else’s life that the line is crossed.

For Christians, the desire to exercise control over people or situations within the context of our fellowship is downright ungodly, as we are commanded that to be first we must be last, that we are to “work together with one mind and purpose…to be humble and think of others as better” than ourselves, to “have the same attitude Christ had” in giving up his “divine privileges” (Philippians 2). In other words, just because I can assert my preferences or orchestrate things to go my way doesn’t mean I should. In fact, perhaps the more compelling my desire to exercise control in an area–even in the context of leadership–the more I should probably resist the urge to do so.

And for good reason. Much of what we call “control” is an illusion. Case in point: Pedestrians in NYC still hit traffic light buttons that haven’t worked in decades (everything is done by computers now) because they THINK it helps them obtain the right of way faster. That’s a telling, albeit harmless, illusion that reveals our need to feel like we control our everyday experiences, something that can motivate us to take responsibility for our choices but can also frustrate us to distraction when things don’t go according to some well-orchestrated plan of ours.

Less harmless is the delusion that we can be in control of areas that defy human intervention as that delusion causes its victims to believe they are unusually gifted or superior to others. For instance, some people who win the lottery attribute the luck to their ability to play the odds and refuse to entertain any other explanation. A more high-stakes example of this delusion was identified in a study on financial markets that found traders who believe they have the greatest control over the markets actually perform the worst in those markets (“The Illusion of Control: Are There Benefits to Being Self-Deluded?” PSYBLOG Why this overestimation of their abilites? Perhaps because this kind of grandiose self-delusion prevents people from seeking or accepting constructive criticism. The more a person believes he is in control, the stronger the delusion of control becomes, and the more likely he is to ignore the signs that things aren’t going so great. People who are controlling avoid or reject confrontation. They resist collaboration.

And they are difficult to be friends with because controlling people are consumed with a desire to dominate and find it difficult to defer to others, even in minor matters.  By definition, control “prevents the flourishing of,” which is great if you’re talking about weeds but devastating if you’re talking about relationships.

Of course, there are areas where we do have considerable control. Ironically, the higher the level of our actual control over a situation, the more likely we are to underestimate it. This is known as the “illusion of futility” by psychologists. The rest of us call it “making excuses” and we are all guilty of it at times. Whatever my excuse, controlling what I eat and how often I exercise keeps me healthier, controlling my speed and attentiveness in a vehicle keeps me and others safer, and controlling my tendency to be a control freak makes my relationships much more pleasant and fruitful.

Because the fruit of the Spirit is love not lockstep, joy not judgement, peace not pettiness, patience not pessimism, kindness not condemnation, goodness not goading, faithfulness not foolishness, gentleness not grievousness, and self-control not self-aggrandizement.

Galatians 6:4 Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else.

1 Peter 4:7-8 The end of all things is near. Therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply because love covers a multitude of sins.

That’s the Word, and I’m a witness.