Lesson 4 – Diary of a Control Freak
‘Lesson from the Road’ is a series on the discoveries I made about myself both as a man and husband whilst walking 580 kms together with my wife Deborah.
Our journey followed The Way of St Francis, an ancient pilgrims’ route through central Italy. It was a beautiful and uplifting time for both of us. But along with the joy we also experienced tears. As we walked, issues came up I’d never fully addressed and could no longer push away.
I’m glad to say by the end of the pilgrimage, my twenty-five year relationship with Deborah was stronger. These stories from the road recount what I learned on the way. I hope they entertain, illuminate and even help in your relationships with the people you love.
Here is lesson four.
Within the space of a few days on the road three women we knew died. The first was the daughter of a friend, in the prime of her life travelling and studying abroad, who succumbed suddenly to an undetected infection. Another lost a tough battle with cancer after being in remission for years. Yet another passed away from the complications of early onset Alzheimer’s. Her husband had cared diligently for her at home for ten years.
Only just last week, a friend’s husband - a man totally dedicated to loving marginalised people - died after muggers beat him senseless. A few weeks ago a former colleague was ‘king hit’ from behind by a complete stranger whilst leaving a pub. He had to have parts of his face rebuilt. One morning recently another friend collapsed getting out of bed, suddenly paralysed from the waist down, and now faces months re-learning how to stand up and walk again.
All around me I see people suffering from illness and loss they did not expect. There is no pattern, just brutal randomness. One day it’s all good and the next you’re on a plane to pick up your husband’s body. Whilst I remain untouched others are stopped in their tracks by catastrophe. Major life change is forced upon them. How can anyone make sense of their fate?
Sometime my life will also be changed against my will. All the exercise, meditation and church attendance in the world cannot prevent it. At times it makes me wonder, ‘Why bother?’ Like why should I sort out a disagreement with someone I could simply unfriend? Or why apologise to my wife for something she could just sweep under the carpet?
‘These days, all I trust are the tears’*. From these tragedies emerge two essential truths I’m trying to accept:
In other words, I cannot anticipate nor manage what is going to happen to me. I don’t know who will be afflicted or spared. I cannot guess when my turn will come or how.
Yet when I look back, I’ve put so much effort into trying to control life. Most of my focus has been on trivial things like stacking the dishwasher efficiently (i.e. my way) or ensuring we follow the ‘fastest route’ according to Google Maps. As if this is going to affect anything substantial!
A great spiritual commentator, Richard Rohr, observes that people obsessed with control cannot enjoy, or at least accept, what is inevitably going to happen to them no matter what they do. They resist almost everything at some level. They live with one foot on the brake and wonder why the accelerator is not working very well. I can see myself in all of this.
I know people who have let go of the need for certainty and control. They are wise and ‘holy’ sages in the old fashioned sense, as if in touch with the Divine. They are grateful to receive what they need, rather than clamour for what they want, expect or think they deserve. They know nothing they have has been earned but rather bestowed as a blessing.
Richard points out people like this get a lot more done, without getting tired, because they no longer struggle against the inner voices of resistance. They ooze compassion and energy. I feel safe around them.
How did they learn to let go? For most it’s the hard way. Like me they spent the first half of life trying to establish control over their lives – education, career, income, family, home. That’s all fine but then they experience some kind of kairos – an old Greek word used a lot in the Bible meaning ‘opportunity for change’ or ‘things coming to a head’. In a modern-day context, the best example is a mid-life crisis. If they surrender to it, the kairos shoves them into the second half of life, which then becomes about letting go of the need for control, accepting what happens and surrendering to the flow of life.
It has taken me a long time to understand there even is a second half of life, although chronologically I got there seventeen years ago and have had more than my share of kairos events.
The rules here are very different. The areas to control are not trivial ‘first-half of life’ concerns but difficult, on-going choices involving attitude and behaviour.
For example, in the video I talk about ‘keeping the toilet bowl clean’. I take this to mean I must: keep short accounts in my relationships; say sorry a lot; don’t let the sun go down on my anger; put myself out there when I’m called to do so; refuse to accept falsehoods like ‘I don’t have enough money’ or ‘There is not enough time’; focus on my own shortcomings rather than judging others; be true to my values rather than my wants or complaints.
Any one of these things is hard enough on its own, let alone taking them all on. But in the second half of life you can’t do anything else.
The sages put their faith in life for the big stuff (which in reality is outside of anyone’s control). If tragedy strikes, they trust in the love and support of others, and the spiritual strength within themselves, to deal with it.
So for now, I’m just going to keep trying to scrub the stains off the toilet.
Watch out for lesson five next, which tells how my wife’s strengths could help me in ways I never imagined.
*Someone famous said this but I don’t know who!