Thursday, April 18, 2013

In Control and out of Control: a Dispatch from the Front

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.


Sabine said...

It is quite a wonderful challenge (she says with a lot of hindsight and a massive history of failure) to observe yourself when you come up against this loss of control, when things start to crumble and you want to just let it all go whatever shitty way is the easiest. It has been my life saver so many times, to just watch myself, in my ridiculous attempts of avoiding the obvious. Which in turn has more and more often offered me a sane way out. But that holds for now, I am not taking any bets on the stresses of the future. Do we grow, get stronger, better, wiser? We have all the information, the insight, the books for godssakes, but when it comes down to it, maybe we are just these slightly furry animals stuck in chaos.

Dale said...

:-) yes.

marly youmans said...

I think you have built a nice mental edifice for yourself, and now you are supporting it with a physical discipline... We all shore up shards against our ruin, I think, or else are washed away by strange seas.

christopher said...

As a man inexplicably at 330 for a decade now, the same decade that heart disease appeared in my life, doing the same life that had been mine the decade before at 250, and the decade before that at 225, I suspect strongly a physiological component quite out of my control.

I worked hard at three separate times in my life with high motivation and succeeded for a year each time to strip off weight in the order of forty to fifty pounds but lost each time against inner madness (nothing short of that term really works) and the rebound was a heavier life.

Now I am paying the price but see no way out. I have lots of disciplines in other areas and have utilized them to good effect in my life but in this area I fight against precisely the same quality of constraint that I do in my allergic life. That struggle too appears in the same weird area at the interface of choice and fate.

Dale said...

Christopher, I don't think you need to view it as madness at all, at all. We need to rid ourselves of the delusion that our cerebral cortex controls more than a fraction of our actions. If most of your brain is convinced that you need to eat, and there's food readily available, you *will* eat. You can override that a few times. With titanic efforts of will you can even override it consistently for months at a time -- but your will won't be of much use for anything else while you do. And -- here's the really unfair part, for eating -- exertion of will depletes blood glucose, measurably, by quite a bit, and makes you hungry. As if you weren't already. It's a nasty catch-22. But it's not madness, and it's not a self-betrayal. It's just that most of your brain is entirely unimpressed by the arguments that convince your cerebral cortex. And eventually it just seizes the reins. You can see exactly the same sort of thing at work in holding your breath: you can do it for a while, but before long the rest of your nervous system says, "screw this, I'm breathing anyway."

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

"...It's just that most of your brain is entirely unimpressed by the arguments that convince your cerebral cortex...."

That's a very important point and I wish you'd elaborate on it, Dale. I am constantly aware of how true this is but also have always believed (or hoped) that something can be done to resolve the dilemma. I don't mean by therapy but something both simpler and more elusive. I can't pin it down precisely but I think clues may be hidden in the mystery of creativity - or rather in those moments of creativity, those states of mind/body/spirit when our usual inner arguments are silenced and there is unity.