Photo by Hayk Arabaget via Wikimedia Commons, CC SA 4.0

Why Not Being in Control Actually Tells Us Who We Are

In our society, we are strongly taught that we are in control of our own lives — our own destinies. This is untrue in many ways, but it is most surprisingly untrue when we find we are not in control of our own selves.

Experiences of non-control are viewed extremely negatively in our society, thus minimized and pathologized: we hope they are rare lapses, or the result of a disordered mind — which needs fixing. Even the phrase “to lose control” suggests that in ordinary circumstances, control is something we expect to possess.

Falling in love is perhaps the one common experience where we are allowed to be swept off our feet — to heed whims and impulses we don’t understand, and yet cannot ignore. The singular position of love in our society hints at how much else we’ve sublimated. The Greeks had a fuller view: the metaphor of a god interceding in your life is one way to account for a need to act, which wells up from the unconscious — not from rational analysis.

It is our obsession with analysis that limits us. This is tied up with a whole mode of thinking that prioritizes the abstract and universal, worries over correctness, and wants to optimize everything — life hacking is but one recent form. I don’t want to get to much into this, but this mode belongs to the broad historical age we find ourselves in: it is not just America or Europe in the 21st century, but much bigger, and derives from the innovations of writing and post-Axial religion — so it is not easy to escape.

When we think about losing control, it usually concerns falling in love or some other extreme and very temporary emotion, like a hot rage. These are indeed rare experiences for most of us, but they are still somewhat accepted. In general though, not having self-control is seen only as a pathology or deep character flaw: we think of gambling or eating too much ice-cream on the sofa. Between these two extremes — of mostly negative hot emotions, and slow-burning compulsions — lies a vast arena of human experiences, which we normally suppress, or at least do not acknowledge, in modern America.

It’s hard to even see or talk about passionate, external, out-of-control experiences. Usually, we only detect them when we run smack into them, and initially see them as unwanted compulsions or limitations, as when we want to be more focused, or more sociable, but find we can’t be. This kind of event undermines the notion of ourselves as a rational actor. Because if we were, we would simply do whatever made sense, like a corporation would. But there are different ways for things to make sense: there is the logical, optimizing idea of what makes sense, but there is also the sense that things mesh with who we are, or don’t. Shouldn’t that be just as important?

This other kind of sense can manifest as gods, furies, muses, or some other primordial force that move us. They come upon us suddenly, seemingly from the outside world, and cannot be ignored without peril to ourselves. This is the metaphor of the angered god: disobey his arbitrary commands, and you will be punished.

Metaphorical or not, these godly injunctions can redirect out lives: if we need to make art, signing up for a corporate job creates a fundamental disjoint, and risks mental breakdown or worse. Because of such severe consequences, these forces can be terrifying. Even without thinking, we know their power. But they are also freeing, because they are so absolute: resisting them is not possible, whatever the consequence; and so a new way forward becomes clear. That is, if we have the clarity to realize what is going on when we run into a boundary, and the courage to do something differently.

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