tribal creatures

Why We Are Control Freaks (I think…)

<July 18/09>

Now, I’m not a psychological expert of any kind. I did get a B.A. in Psychology back in pre-history (1974), when, frankly, very little was acttually yet understood about the human brain.

There’s plenty I don’t know about human psychology – don’t really understand – but I am a keen & constant observer of human nature – & I read a lot, think a lot & have the occasional “Aha!” moment.

I believe there are two levels to our control freak-ism – the very, very personal & the more, shall we say, global.

I’m pretty convinced that the genesis of our tendency toward control freak-ism goes back to the time in human history, widely said by scholars to be about 10,000 years ago, when we chose to abandon the tribal lifestyle – the life of gatherers & hunters – & began to practice settled agriculture. Several books introduced this idea to me: In the Absence of the Sacred – The Failure of Technology & the Survival of the Indian Nations (Jerry Mander, Sierra Club Books, 1992); Ishmael – An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit (Daniel Quinn, Bantam/Turner, 1992) & My Name is Chellis & I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization (Chellis Glendinning, Shambhala, 1994). (I highly recommend all 3,btw.)

In doing so, we detoured away from millennia of placing our faith in the Earth/Universe to provide for us (which the Earth/Universe was so generously doing), & decided to “take control” of things. In retrospect, it now seems to a lot of us, I think, that this was a very, very problematic choice.

Abandoning the tribal lifestyle has had many unfortunate & no doubt unintended consequences (I love that phrase: unintended consequences; life is just plain full of them, hmm?), to put it rather mildly. Separating ourselves from Nature – & from each other & our tribal ways – has been nothing short of disastrous.

That’s the global piece.

So now we all have 10,000 years of a control mindset wired into us – into our brains & our genes & our culture & our guts.

Bringing it down to the more personal level, many of us on the planet grew up in families in which dysfunctionality was rampant; is it not so?

There are/were alcoholic parents, parents who abandon/ed us in one form or another, mistreat/ed us, sexually abuse/d us, visit/ed violence upon us, berate/d us constantly – & we wind up/wound up very damaged in a startling variety of ways. If our childhood was very chaotic, unpredictable & out-of-control, as adults we tend to have an intense need to control our circumstances – our emotions, our surroundings, the people around us & so on. (Even the appearance of our lawns! To the point of being willing to use poisons on them to “subdue” weeds. Sheesh!)

It’s not so surprising, is it? We want to somehow right the wrongs that were done to us, & so we become control freaks – to a greater or lesser degree. We want things to be predictable. No more out of control stuff, please, we are saying, hmm?

It’s a coping strategy, pure & simple. It doesn’t tend to work terribly well, of course, given that the very nature of life is to not be controlled or controllable. So it becomes a vicious cycle. The more we try to control everything around us, the more out-of-control things seem to become. And on & on we go, around & around, making ourselves (& the people around us) miserable, sick & maybe even crazy.

Control freak-ism is kind of a losing strategy, you might say, hmm?

It often seems to take a personal disaster of some sort to make us see that our excessive need for control is causing us more problems than it solves. (Been there!)

When life throws an unexpected curve ball our way – especially one of rather large proportions (& Life seems to positively delight in doing so!) – & life as we’ve known it is shattered, often light begins to dawn. We see the illusory nature of the control freak-ism that has so limited us, & we begin to see that a generous Earth/Universe is there to support us, quite without our having to always be the Great Big Sheriff of this, that & the other thing. We let go and, as it were, the Earth rises up to greet us.

It’s all quite magical, really.

I find all of it very, very poignant. Tragic, but so poignant. So much of human endeavour & our human frailties (& worse) can drive us right around the bend, almost – but when we come to see that underneath all the nonsense we are really quite innocent creatures – innocent, but very, very damaged & hurt; well, it helps, somehow, doesn’t it? It certainly helps bring up compassion, if nothing else.

I’ve heard that some of the major writers (being terrible with details, I can’t remember who) have pinpointed alienation as the key human problem or issue. I think they’re right. A word I would twin with it is abandonment. So many of us feel we were abandoned in one or many ways by our parents (& we were, we were) and/or by spouses/partners along the way (we were, we were) – & this comes down through the generations, & Heaven help us all, we then pass it on down to our own children, one way & another; tragically, tragically, this is so.

We’ve all felt abandoned/alienated for 10,000 years, so how could things be otherwise??

We human beings evolved to be loved & looked after & cared for by a whole tribe of people, whom we in return love, look after & care for.

How then could we feel anything other than abandoned & alienated in a world that tells us to get by on our own, more or less – or in the care of a very small number of people, some of them too damaged themselves to do anything but pass along their hurts & pain & neuroses & damage?(1)

It’s all very sad – nay, tragic – & so poignant to realize that we are all in the same darn boat. We’re all damaged – to greater & lesser degrees – & we live in a world – an industrial economy that, as Wendell Berry has said, “thrives by damage.”

Healing is always possible, however. It is human nature to change / grow / evolve. It may very well be that we have let the sickness go on too long, & our condition (as a species) is terminal – but at least as individuals, we can turn ourselves around (only if we truly want to, of course. That is a choice we make, & choice is key, key, key in human endeavour).

Now. All of this is just my opinion. None of it is scientific fact, & you can’t put any of it under a microscope or conduct a scientific experiment to prove (or disprove) it.

As Einstein once said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.”

It seems to me like truth. Make of it what you will, hmmmm?


p.s. The essays ‘Control Freaks Anonymous’ & ‘Ditching the 2 x 4’s’ are also about the perennially important subject of control – which I see as the central issue/dilemma of human endeavour, pretty much…

p.p.s. a LOT of years later: I don’t think I even referenced patriarchy in this essay, & I think the many thousands of years of males “lording” it over females has resulted in many-many-many “unintended consequences” (to put it very mildly indeed). Then too, there are other things in life that can incline us toward control freak-ism. Sigh .. eh??

(1) Richard Rohr said, “All great spirituality is about what we do with our pain. If we do not transform our pain, we will transmit it to those around us.” This statement certainly resonates for me…

Bear Bells (& human nature...)

I went out for a walk in the dark the other night (to watch the meteor showers down at Pine Point beach), & felt like a bit of an idiot, taking a flashlight & a “bear bell” with me.


I currently live in eastern Ontario (Canada), in a beautiful small town on the Ottawa River that happens to be frequented by bear visitors. This town is in the “boonies,” sort of: not too far from the “wilderness” of our huge, beautiful treasure of a park, Algonquin Park. (We are extraordinarily blessed in this part of the world to have about a zillion beautiful lakes, & some remaining forest. Very, very blessed indeed…)


So, there are bears in my town sometimes. I’m not at all freaked out about this. Actually, I think it’s very cool to live in a part of the world that isn’t utterly paved over & subdued – & I get quite a kick out of this bear business. On the other hand, I’m not really up for a close encounter with one, so I took my bear bell along on my walk – feeling a bit foolish (folks might think I’m not brave or something, hmm?), but also very happy to have the bell (thanks, Phil!)


I got down to the end of my street – bear bell still in silent mode (a magnet keeps it silent when it isn’t needed), & I saw (& heard) a woman jogging along Rutherford Drive – with her dog – a bell of her own ringing cheerfully & quite audibly!


And I thought, “Yes! I’m not alone! If she is wearing a bear bell – unabashedly – then I am not such an idiot/buffoon/twit to be carrying one myself.”


And then I thought, “Wow! What a metaphor!”


How often do we all go around holding ourselves in – feeling foolish, or alone, or afraid – only to discover we’re all holding ourselves in, feeling foolish, alone, & afraid?


William Crisman, author of the book The Opposite of Everything is True – Reflections on Denial in Alcoholic Families (a book I’ve found most, most helpful) said in the book “…for (like everyone else) I define myself by bouncing against others.”


It is so, it is so…


If only we could all “let go” a little more – ease up on ourselves (& everyone else), & just admit honestly to our foibles & fears, our neuroses & pain.


After all, we are all in the same darn boat, hmm?




p.s. We evolved to be tribal creatures, yes? Members of communities. Not “islands” unto ourselves…


p.p.s. Associated ‘Quote of the day’: “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, who also said, btw, “Sin is that which separates.”