Thursday, September 22, 2011

Letting go or losing control?

I’ve spent some time on this blog ruminating over the concept of “letting go,” what it means, and its implications on how to live.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about where the line is between letting go and losing control.  This is because one, they are two very different things, and two, I feel like I’m having trouble telling the difference.

As I see it, letting go is all about realizing that the control we instinctively want to exert over our lives and fortunes is largely an illusion.  Ask anyone who’s been through Hurricane Katrina, or in a severe car accident, or is living with cancer, or Alzheimer’s, how much control we really have over the things that happen to us in our own lives.  And, in a way, it’s a misguided notion anyway, because I don’t think the goal of the game we’re playing is “the person who most successfully controls their own life wins.” That kind of implies that the person who is able to live under a rock the longest without being found would have the best life.  I hope that’s not the case, because if it is I just threw away my shot at the title.

But we do adore the seductive illusion of control, don’t we? 

It would probably be healthier, and wiser, to focus instead on how we react and respond to the things that happen which are beyond our control.  What we do with what we are given I think is much closer to the point of our being here.  When we focus so intensely on controlling everything that enters our environment, it hurts our flexibility to react and respond, and constrains our willingness to be open to new possibilities.  If we can acknowledge that we don’t possess the ability to absolutely control our lives, we free ourselves from the pressure that comes with trying to do it.   This is a concept I’ll admit I’m still getting used to.  However, allowing myself to believe that there is a Will at work in the universe, and accepting that that Will is working to bring all things to ultimate good has truly been a game-changer for me, and a big relief.  It means I don’t have to do it. 

Losing control, on the other hand, is more what happens when you either forget to let go, and return to micro-managing your environment (with predictable results), or when you go the other way and abdicate all responsibility, and just give up completely.  This is similar to getting in the world’s scariest roller-coaster, and refusing to exercise any discipline over any of your bodily functions whatsoever.  You’re going to end up in a mess, and that mess will affect the people around you as much as it does you, especially those who were behind you to begin with.  Clearly, neither of these extremes represent letting go. 

Seeing as how I’m still very early on in the letting-go process, sometimes it feels like I’m losing control, even though I’m doing my best to stay in that zone between micro-managing and giving up completely.  Case in point:  Saturday morning I got up at 5 a.m. to start writing.  I went about my simple morning routine as quietly as possible, and started writing.  At 5:45, I heard Maria begin to cry from her room.  Elizabeth is more than happy to take care of Maria when I’m writing, so I waited to hear that she had gone to get her.  She did, but I heard Maria calling “Daddy, Daddy,” as she was being carried across the hall into our room.  It continued as Elizabeth put her on our bed and changed her diaper.  I waited again, but the slow, mournful “Daddy, Daddy’s” didn’t stop, and I was afraid she would wake up Jessica.  When I poked my head in the bedroom, she greeted me with an enthusiastic “Daddy!” 

“Hi sweetie,” I replied, smiling.  I shouldn’t have smiled, but I couldn’t help it; anytime she gives the impression that she’s happy to see me it makes me smile, even when we both know there’s an ulterior motive behind it.    
“I’m awake,” she said.
“Yes, I see that,” I responded.  “You know, the sun’s not even up yet.  It’s still nighttime.”
Her expression changed to serious.  “I’m awake.”
“I’m awake, Daddy.”
You’re awake?”
“Yes, Daddy, I’m awake.” She stated this simply, factually, as though she were just expressing what should be patently obvious to the rest of us.
“I see.”
“I don’t want to go back to bed.”
“Yes, I understand.  You’re awake.”
“Yes, I’m awake.”
Happy to have established that, I elected to turn her back over to Elizabeth, who coaxed her to stay in bed with promises of television.  I returned to my perch, and continued writing.  In my mind, though, I was wondering about control, and who had it, and, if it was an illusion, where did my two-year-old daughter get so much of it?  Perhaps I should have put my foot down with her, and exerted my authority, just because I felt that that authority was being challenged?  And yet, I could see the complete absurdity in pursuing that path.  I will tell you, little girl, when you’re awake, and you are not awake! 

A few hours later, Elizabeth told me about an exchange she had with Maria after I left.  Elizabeth tried to lull Maria back to sleep by stroking her arm, and whispering gentle, comforting words.  After getting her fill of this subtle, but transparent, attempt at coercion, Maria turned to Elizabeth, fixed her with a stare that Elizabeth said reminded her of Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and said with steely resolve, “I’m not going back to sleep.” 
“It was kind of intimidating,” Elizabeth confided to me as she relayed the incident.

Someone please tell Maria that control is an illusion.

A little later in the morning, I stumbled across a spell sheet that Jessica had been working on.  When I say a spell sheet, I’m not talking about a list of 5th grade vocabulary words.    I’m talking about an alphabetical list she found on the internet of all the spells mentioned in the Harry Potter books, and what they are used to do.  She began reading the Sorcerer’s Stone this week, and evidently is enjoying it on a level far beyond anything I would have anticipated.  It’s not the comprehensive catalog of fictional spells that bothered me really; it was the extensive annotations Jessica had written all over them that made me look at it more closely.  Using different colored pens, she had started coding them according to purpose.  At the top, in twisted handwriting almost as cryptic as the spells printed on the page, she explained what the colors represented.  I think I will quote her here:  “Black means use on adventures,” “Green - means spells for battles” (or bottles, I couldn’t be certain), “Blue – means use on Maria (Voldemort).”  This last one is what nearly caused me to do an orange juice spit-take all over the kitchen counter.  Now, I’ll readily admit that I don’t know much about the world of Harry Potter, but I’ve absorbed enough through osmosis to understand that Voldemort is a bad guy, and so spells used to fight him are probably going to be some of the more serious ones. An inspection of the compendium confirmed this.  Among the spells with a blue check mark next to them:  “Avada Kadavra,” which “murders opponents,” and is considered “unforgiveable” (I should think so!), “Furnunculus,” which “produces boils on opponents,” “Densaugeo,” which “enlarges teeth” (?!), and “Diffindo,” which “splits seams.” Now I’m no child psychologist, but I’m detecting just a touch of latent hostility here. 

I know Jessica too well to know that she’d ever do anything more damaging than covertly pinch, poke, or deliver an off-handed smack to Maria when she thinks she can get away with it, and I also know that she has a definite flair for the dramatic.  No, flair’s not right, let’s say unquenchable predilection for the dramatic, for which I mostly blame the Disney channel, but that’s another topic.  She’s normally a pretty reserved child, but at times she goes completely uncorked with drama.  I have been told that this is only going to get worse in the years to come, which is why I’ve been considering adding red drapery, theater seating and a proscenium to the house.  But, aside from the melodramatics, she’s doing it because, let’s face it, when you’re a kid sometimes it’s fun to think about hurting your siblings.  I know exactly where she’s coming from; I have four sisters, and three of them have been subject to untold numbers of dinosaur attacks and vicious, bloody dismemberments by wild animals back in the day.  By the time the fourth one came along I was much older, and the Death Star was my preferred method for eliminating my troublesome sisters.  It was quicker, less messy, and the imaginary explosions were cool. 

I’ll admit, it is a little surprising to see these raw, destructive instincts come out in your own children (Sorry, Mom).  And because of what had happened with Maria earlier that morning, I was already inclined to see this unexpected display of aggression in terms of my battle between letting go and losing control, and whether I should respond, and if so, how. Was this a situation where I should let go, understanding that Jessica is just working through some of her ambivalence towards her little sister, or would letting it go be a sign that I’ve lost control, and abdicated my responsibility as an adult and parent?  Should I have clamped down and told her how horrible it is to want to use Harry Potter spells to maim and kill her sister?  Should I have torn the list up in front of her as a visible (and dramatic) demonstration of my moral outrage?  Or would that only drive the feelings she has deeper down, and make her feel like she needs to hide those feelings from me?  I claim to want a relationship where we can discuss anything openly, and be truthful with each other, which argues for a calm, understated approach.  So why do I feel like maybe I should have read her the riot act and rebuked her vociferously for wishing such terrible things to happen to her sister?  It’s a tough place to be sometimes, the front line of parenting. 

At the time, I chose not to say anything to Jess about the spell sheets.  I let her go about her business without betraying any sign of my discomfort.  I suppose the right thing to do is to sit her down with her spell sheets and have a discussion.  This discussion would focus on two things:  first, to talk to her about the negative feelings she has sometimes regarding her little sister, and let her know they’re normal and that I knew the same kind of feelings when I was growing up, and second, that I do not condone actual murder, torture or mistreatment of any living thing, including little sisters.  Take-away message:  feelings happen, but actions are choices.  Meanwhile, just in case, I’m going to keep a watchful eye for anything coming into this house with a Diagon Alley address.  Oh yeah, I know about Diagon Alley. 


  1. I'll post as anonymous because I can't figure out how to post as myself--- but I have to say your youngest siblings did not get away unscathed from your tortured delusions. I remember being videotaped with one of us smothered in ketchup being chased by the other on a big-wheel while Kevin "Spielberg" Thorson was safely behind the camera. The dialogue surely would have been Harry Potter spells had it been invented then! I wonder where Jessica gets it from. Ha ha ha.

  2. Just so you know, voldermort was originally destroyed when he attempted the Arvada Kadavra spell on Harry. That is also how Harry received his special lightning scar. So, I would say, keep on the lookout for any unusal marks that appear on Maria's forehead. :)

  3. Anonymous - Oh, how I love a mystery! I believe in order to post as yourself, you first need to sign up for a google account, which is free, but which may or may not be worth the hassle. Readers, please correct me if I'm wrong on this. As to the comments you made, I hope I didn't imply that any of my siblings escaped unscathed from my unusual forms of torture. What you say is true, and all I can offer in my own defense is that as an observer of life, safely behind the camera (or the keyboard) is the only place for me to be. You're also right that had Harry Potter been around in the 70's, I would have definitely been making up list of spells; however, as you know, they would not have replaced the Death Star! Thanks for the comments!

  4. Hutton - Please, no Harry Potter spoilers! Jessica and I just finished the first two books independently, and have started reading "The Prisoner of Azkaban" together. However, thanks for the warning, and I will be checking Maria daily, and not just her forehead!

  5. No Harry Potter spoiler. Actually, what I commented on was discussed in the first book. The scar is there as a result of the spell voldemort attempted to use on Harry. Don't worry I won't ruin the story for you by telling you about the alien invasion that occurs at the end of Goblet of Fire. :)

  6. Alien invasion! That JK Rowling is so predictable. Anyone could have seen that coming!