Out of Control

(or More Tantrums Required?)

Our 4 year old is currently in a battle for control, or lack thereof really.  He will launch into these emotional tantrums and irrational tirades, seemingly over nothing at all.  Or perhaps they are over everything.

Which is how we found ourselves at the beach at few months ago, on a mid-September day, with our son in his pajamas.  When he has these fits, if we can even figure out what he is upset about, we do our best to concede some point or decision to him.  The director of a local preschool advised parents not to fight their children on what they wear to school.  She even suggested that if they want to show up naked, that was perfectly fine – and that after that one time, they wouldn’t try that antic again.  I’m not sure I support the peer shaming of preschoolers to get them to conform to societal norms, so I’m okay with most things as long as there is no inherent danger present, physical or emotional.  Pajamas on the beach seemed to pass that test.

Since it was mid-September, we were just planning on sitting on the beach.  It was a clear, sunny day, but not the beach weather of the height of the summer.  We had left behind our beach umbrella, our sand toys, even our swimsuits.  But sure enough, our son in his pajamas wanted to go into the water.  I said we could go dip our toes in the water, certain that it would be too cold for much else.

But our son had a different idea.  Soon enough he was soaking wet, and I finally just stripped him down to his underwear.  As I watched him play in the waves, I was really moved by the scene unfolding before me.  Here I was at the beach, on what should have been a fall day, except that Mother Nature had a different idea, watching my son bask in the excitement and pure joy of jumping in the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, in his Monsters Inc. briefs.  It was the picture of childhood innocence.  I wanted to stop time, and let him play in those waves forever.  He didn’t need a swimsuit or playmate to make this magic – it was just him and the ocean and an adventurous spirit.

I do get where he is coming from, in his need to exert control over his own life, even at the mere age of 4.  As an adult, I think of how many aspects of my own life are out of my control and how I fight back to gain my own autonomy wherever I can.  So for a young child, it is even more oppressive as he has very little control over so much of his life.  Add in a bossy big brother, and not one, but two moms, and the window of control gets infinitely smaller.

For me, the innate human desire to be in control has become more apparent, more prevalent over this past year.

I’ve stood by helplessly as so many of my fellow colleagues have lost their jobs.  Not due to anything that they have done, but as a result of bad luck, bad timing.  Of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Restructuring happens, a corporate game of musical chairs.  And sometimes when the music stops, people – good people – are left without a chair.  I know the same fate could await me.  I try to mentally prepare myself to not take it personally when it does, even though I know I probably will.

I’ve stood by helplessly as friends have fallen ill through no fault of their own.  Good, healthy people who took care of their bodies and spirits, befallen by bad genes or bad luck.  We all carry around chromosomal mutations, oblivious to the wreckage that can be unleashed without warning.

One of the specialists we consulted with after our first child was born assured us that we have the medical capabilities to identify each person’s genetic mutations but that we don’t have the social support structure to help people react to that knowledge.  How might the world be different if we all knew what exactly might befell us?  Would we live any differently?  Or are we only able to survive in blissful ignorance?

I’ve seen Mother Nature arbitrarily unleash her full force on unsuspecting communities.  In surveying the aftermath, there is no rhyme or reason for what was destroyed and what survived.  Wrong place, wrong time.

The future of our country is now in the hands of people who do not share any of my values or ideals.  What decisions will they make and how might that further erode my sense of being in control?

I work in a large metropolitan city.  I try to make a point of not leaving the house without hugging and kissing my wife and kids, making sure they hear my “I love you” before I go.  It’s a crazy haphazard world out there.  Anything can happen.  Wrong place, wrong time.

Some say that the only thing you can control is your response to events:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
~ Viktor E. Frankl,
 Man’s Search for Meaning

I don’t even think that’s entirely true.  Each individual’s response is formed by personal history, inter-generational history, community, relationships, wounded-ness – all factors very much out of one’s control.

We all want to be in control because it is terrifying to live out of control.  And unlike my son, adults aren’t allowed full-blown raging tantrums when we are tired of succumbing to the powerful forces dictating life.  Can you imagine life if we all just wailed against perceived injustices?

We cede much control to be able to live in a stable society.  We agree to abide by laws and expectations and norms so that life is more pleasant for all.  Except when it’s not.

I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze.  But I think maybe it’s both.  Maybe both are happening at the same time.
~ Forrest Gump (1994)

If only it felt like life was a gentle floating feather.  It often feels more like being banged about, repeatedly, into hard metal objects that leave bruises and scars.

One of my favorite things about Christmas as a kid was the electric candles in the windows of my bedroom.  My mom would let me leave them on when I went to bed, and I used this time to read under the covers or lie awake imagining, basking in the comforting glow of those candle lights.  Even now, the candles in my grown-up bedroom window bring me a similar sense of peace and safety and security.  But it was really about control: what to do with that time, when to decide to go to bed.  It was a few precious extra minutes each day to do what I wanted, to be the sole-decision maker, to stay up late and break the rules.  My bedroom was my fortress and I was in charge.

So sing, sing at the top of your voice
Love, without fear in your heart
Feel, feel like you still have a choice
If we all light up we can scare away the dark
~ Passenger, “Scare Away the Dark”

Life, and the darkness it can bring, is scary.  Terrifying.  Control is just an illusion, appealing as it seems on the surface.  Unforeseen, senseless terrors lurk around every corner, not unlike the monsters under the bed: war, violence, death, famine, injustice, loss, rage, illness, disability, financial ruin, homelessness, oppression, hatred, marginalization, stigmatization, trauma, isolation, instability.

I recently shocked my older son by informing him that adulthood is not as appealing as it seems from his vantage point.  I’m not sure he believed me.  He just wants to grow up and be in charge, be in control.  The illusion is appealing even for a young child.

Control seems to exist like a bright shining beacon, always just slightly out of reach, but mesmerizing and captivating just the same.  It’s hard to look away from the false promise, to stare into the darkness.

The only way forward is to look for the real true light, the light we all carry inside, to illuminate the path, which often appears in unexpected ways.  And if all else fails, perhaps throw caution to the wind and just go for a swim in your underwear?  You might be surprised at the wonder you will find.

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