For decades I have been exploring what it means to live a life I can't control. Psychology and neurology have increasingly made it clear: the brain is not unitary, and it's not under the dictatorship of the cerebral cortex. The part of ourselves that can speak can't really speak for us, can't really make promises about what we will do. It is not even in control of itself: it can't decide when to think and when not to; it can't decide to think of this and not of that. The experience of meditation makes that abundantly clear. We are dangerously out of control, all of us.
I came to this realization early, simply because I grew up in considerable chaos, in the shadow of my mother's distress about not being able to control her eating, which was the central tragedy of her life. I too, I knew very early, was not in control, at least not totally. Sometimes I was just along for the ride.
I'm grateful for the early lessons. I will never be even tempted to the contempt some people have for others who are out of control, or -- more accurately -- for people whose lack of control takes forms that put them beyond the pale. There but for the grace of God. No one chooses those breakdowns.
At the same time, and paradoxically, I've been aware of myself having a considerable discipline of will and fortitude. Like poor old Gordon Liddy, I could hold my hand in a candle flame if I needed to persuade someone of my grit. No problem. I may have had my demons, but ordinary fear was not one of them. I could, and did, defy crowds and bullies. There was something weirdly heroic about me. I was, to my peers in junior high school (the last time I had to live in mainstream America, thank God) a disquieting figure. As my teachers used to say -- it's remarkable how many of them said this of me -- I marched to my own drummer.
Reading Roy Baumeister's Willpower a year or two ago marked a turning point for me. I owned that weird heroism again. I thought a lot about self-control, self-regulation, as psychologists phrase it. It is neither a constant nor an absolute power, but it is a power, and I have at least as much of it as anyone else. I've thought long and hard about how to deploy it, where it can succeed and where it can't. I've brought that thinking to the particularly demon-haunted land of eating, and used it to build habits, and erect levees. I'm proud of the skill with which I've built. The structure is -- just barely -- strong enough to hold against the ordinary stresses of my present life. Give it a year or two, it may be strong enough to withstand even higher stresses. Should some misfortune -- sickness, accident, or death -- befall Martha or the kids, it would all crumble. Should I have to resume the ordinary full-time working world, with its stresses, exposure, and humiliations, it would all crumble too. At present, it is just strong enough. Just barely. The stresses of my birthday -- of the three-day oncology massage workshop last weekend -- did not, quite, break the levees. That's about as stressful as my life gets, these days. I made it.
It is not important, in itself. It's trivial. Who cares whether I weigh two hundred pounds, or three hundred? The extravagant value placed on these things by the culture weigh with me, and intimidate me, but they don't compel belief. It's not important, and nothing will make it so. It's only personally important, in that it bears -- intimately and horribly importantly -- on whether my life seems to have a future. On whether I have already lived out all the life available to me, or not. I realize this is a ludicrous over-investment of meaning, but it seems to belong rather to that group of important things I can't control, rather than to those I can. I bow, where I must.