The Comfort and Discomfort of Control
Five tears ago, S came to speak with me. A tumultuous childhood, and the early loss of his mother convinced him that he would survive only if he was in total control of his life. By the time S came to speak, he was married with two children, financially secure, and miserable. He felt that he was flailing his arms in the air, slowly losing control of his life. He was so busy maintaining control that he found his life programmed to the minute, over programmed, and he realized that he had no joy in life, or even his children. He had every minute of their lives scheduled, and between music lessons, sports, art, and the country club, they were too busy to spend time with their parents. His wife understood that she could not live with him unless she too lived a super controlled life, and she was increasingly unhappy and frustrated. His structured life had begun to crack, and, to his surprise, he couldn’t control it.
S believed that control was a source of comfort in that it was the opposite of his childhood experience. He acknowledged that it is impossible to assert total control over life, and was willing to consider that his need for control was a strategy to avoid life rather than live. There was no question that his need for control made his life less controllable.
We agreed on an experiment. He took his family on a unscheduled vacation; meaning, he did not schedule an activity for every minute of their vacation. He even took his old paintbrushes, paints and blank canvases he had stored away more than twenty years earlier. His wife and children were hesitant; they had never experienced such freedom with him. They all had two fabulous weeks filled with joy and relaxation.
He called to thank me and to inform me that he had signed up for a Yoga, Tai Chi, and meditation, classes. I voiced my concern that he was again over scheduling his life and would eventually lose the benefit of the classes. I urged him to take only one class. He laughed, and said, ironically, “Don’t worry! I’m in control.” I knew that it was only a matter of time.
I did not hear from him again until last week when he called for some comfort: His life is again out of control. He didn’t request help, but comfort. He was suffering through life, and did not want, perhaps could not want, to hear how he could let go of his need for control. “I want you to comfort me as I look back at my life and realize that I destroyed my happiness, my wife’s happiness, and my children’s happiness.”
I offered to help him develop strategies to change his life, but he wasn’t interested. He wanted comfort: “You comfort mourners all the time. Why can’t you comfort me?” He wanted to control my response.
I refused. I did not argue with a mother who had just lost her ten-year old son who said, “My life is over.” I argued with S. I did not argue with a nineteen-year old who woke up in ICU after a skiing accident as a quadriplegic and said, “Now I’m just waiting to die.” I argued with S. I comforted the mother by listening. The mother eventually chose to live again. I visited the boy three months later with a mute, crippled and deformed survivor of Mengele’s experiments. He sat next to the boy’s bed and held his hand. We sat in total silence for about fifteen minutes. The boy got more from staring into the eyes of my companion than from countless pep talks. He is now happily married to a wheelchair bound woman. They were among the four people who came to that survivor’s funeral.
The mother certainly experienced that she could not control her life. She was comforted when she accepted her lack of control, but was determined to deal with whatever would come her way.
The quadriplegic definitely learned that he did not control his life. He was comforted when he accepted that he could still control certain things.
The Jews who refused to heed Jeremiah’s warnings believed that they were in control, and could prevent the world’s super power from capturing Jerusalem. They soon learned that they could not control everything. They, as the mother, learned to accept that they could not control everything in their lives.
They arrived in Babylon without any sense of control, in chains, disgraced and humiliated, but soon began to rebuild their lives. They learned that although they could not control everything, they could control some.
They went through two stages; accepting what they could not control, and then, learning to accept responsibility for what they could.
This is why Isaiah begins his words of consolation, “Nachamu, Nachamu,” “Be comforted, be comforted;” he reminds us that comfort and consolation progress through stages.
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