Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Lent and the Problem of Control

The phrase I coined on Monday was not quite accurate.

We sinners aren't so much trying to set up a Comfortable Substitute for Reality, but a Controlled Substitute for Reality.

A friend of mine described what it was like for her to be addicted to nicotine.  "It wasn't so much the physical craving for a cigarette," she said, "as it was the desire for the handy crutch to get me through the day."  I understood that completely, even though I've never smoked a cigarette.  My drugs of choice were different.

But all addictions are our means of generating the Illusion of Control.  Physical dynamics of addiction aside, work-a-holics are trying to keep their lives under control and hyper-managed, drug addicts are trying to control pain and pleasure, and porn addicts are trying to turn the most frightening thing in a creative person's life - Eros - into a "manageable" product, something that's literally in their own hands and that through porn or masturbation is shorn of its ability to draw one out into something beyond our control - such as love or even intense desire.

This psychological aspect of addiction - escape from the stress of the uncontrolled and uncontrollable elements in our lives - is, I believe, the psychogenesis of all sin.  In other words, we are overwhelmed by the awe of Reality, and we want to substitute not only Unreality, but an Unreality we can Control.

In C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, heaven is too much for souls that still cling to sin because heaven is so Real it hurts.

If God is anything, He is Reality.

He is the reality of love, of pain, of suffering, and of all the horror that comes when we feel we don't have Control, when we realize we're really not the boss.

But we never really have control.  We like to think we do.  We like to think that we've got to do all the work, not God.  And this is true even for the Quietists who say, "Well, it's God's will," and shrug their shoulders.  They tend to be the people who work hardest at keeping their lives in tightly managed little boxes of their own making.  The people I've known who have most frequently said, "It's just God's will" are - behind the scenes - the biggest control freaks you can meet.

The fact is God wants us to cooperate, to re-create, to be his handmaid or the "son of His handmaid" (Ps. 116) - but again, one plants, another waters, and God (and only God) gives the increase.  (1 Cor 3:6)


Reminding ourselves of this may be a good way to approach Lent.

Not that I'm all that good at Lent.  As I expressed in this triolet some years ago ...

Have mercy on me, Lord, a sinner,
My Lenten vows I'm not observing.
I say this grace tonight at dinner,
“Have mercy on me, Lord, a sinner!"
I break my fast and grow no thinner
For I have had a second serving.
Have mercy on me, Lord, a sinner,
My Lenten vows I'm not observing.

But one way to look at Lent would be to pray, "Lord, show me all of the ways in my life that I shove you out and push myself in.  Take that tendency away from me.  May the work I do not be the busy work that keeps you out, but the preparation that invites you in."

I had an acting teacher once give me the book Zen in the Art of Archery.  It's all about working your butt off training to be a good archer, and then abandoning all your training and letting go the moment you aim and release that arrow.  Sow and cultivate and let God do what He will.  We learn this again and again as actors - learn your lines, prepare your character, but above all let go.  A forced performance, a contrived performance, is not an authentic performance.

And a forced or contrived life is not an authentic life, nor a Christian one.  As I keep pointing out in my tirades about sex (most recently here), our job is not to idolize Desire, nor is our job to cram Desire into a drawer and let it languish - but to channel Desire into its proper boundaries.  For God has given us some very clear boundaries - the Commandments, the Beatitudes, Church teaching on morality - and these serve as the framework for the structure we build.  If He is the foundation, and if His Law is our framework, then the materials we provide will glorify His name in the building, even if tested by fire.  (1 Cor. 3:13)

Which is to say - happy Lent!


Bo Bonner said...

This is a wonderful way to put it. Exactly, exactly a thousand times! The greatest sacrifice is to be prepared--to prepare very hard, to invest your blood sweat and tears, and then, at the moment when you would think it best to cling to that preparation (shooting the arrow, the curtain opening, beginning a speech, saying "I do," etc.), to immolate it all on the altar of the present moment, and give yourself entirely to what you are doing. This is the hardest, but greatest thing a human can do. Again, perfect way to put it.

Bo Bonner said...

Also, the distinction you make between desire-at-all and eros in the article you linked is the whole enchilada--if people confuse that, they confuse the whole thing. This is why some of the early 20th century debates on nature and grace are so important. Folks like de Lubac and Von Balthasar may have not been heretical (though I am rather convinced they are wrong), but they open up to people like West who confuse Augustinianism to say any desire whatsoever is just a symptom of our desire of God. Thomists have long responded that the desire for God is ellicited, that the world raises desires in us, and then as rational beings we have the capacity to understand a desire the surmounts all other desires, and begin to seek God. Its less that the man who goes to the whore house is looking for God, but that, through God's grace, the man who goes to the whore house can come to understand that he desires so much more.

Anonymous said...

I think the most "uncomfortable" topic of the ones you listed would be accepting that we really have no control ( this is a uncomfortable topic for practicing Catholics who haven't been able to abandon themselves to Gods will, which I would say is many who attend mass weekly) but how often anger, frustration and the like are caused because we have the assumption we are "in control" and things don't go our way. It's obvious this is a core theme in American culture because we pay lots of money for advice of glorified actors such as Suze Orman or the like to give us "the tools to take control", yet to accept we really have no control would be ignoring many people's root sin: Pride. I'm going to do some research to see if motivational speakers are popular in other countries, something tells me not as much.

Amarillo, Texas

Joey Higgins said...

Great post.

Tangentially related is that today I was looking at the lunch menu and remembered - "ah, no meat/chicken today." Well, suddenly I received an urge that I "wanted chicken really badly."

How badly the body/mind want to be in control that they react so strongly when you tell them they can't have something.

I think I also know some of the people that use, "God's will," as a crutch almost - the articulation that you have given here was quite useful to understanding why using that terminology in the way they use/used it did not sit well with me - thank you!