The Paradox of Control

There’s an interesting phenomenon that I’ve encountered over the years. I don’t know if it’s really a phenomenon or not, but it certainly is an interesting observation that conveys a truth.

I really grasped it when I saw it play out with people who are unhoused, as well as in economic poverty. I would watch and work with people who were unhoused, and I noticed that there were often two different directions that people would take in dealing with these situations when they were in them. The first direction is made of people who recognized their situation as not great and that what they were doing was not working, and so when they reached out for help, they let go of control, taking whatever direction and advice was offered with humility. They were humble about the situation recognizing that they didn’t know what they needed to do, so they were open to help and direction. And many of these folks would get the direction and help they needed and make necessary changes and actions, all the time being surrounded by people to support them, so they weren’t ever going it alone. These are the folks who would often be able to get out of their situations and get into housing and start to have a better life. Mind you, this direction is not easy. It’s really difficult. It requires a person to let go of the false notion that they are in control and that they know – two things that humans resist with a passion.

The other group tended to move in a different direction. They would recognize that their situation was not good and that what they were doing was not working just like the first group I described. But instead of letting go of control, they would assert more control over their situation. And when they did, it always seemed that this made the situation worse. They insisted on doing things their way, but their way did not work. This was also a more natural inclination that humans have. Insisting on doing things their way often lead to fights and arguments, people being frustrated, people walking away, and legal circumstances, let alone other destructive behaviors and outcomes.

To use a metaphor, the first group was in a hole with a shovel and they put down the shovel and asked for someone to throw them a rope and help them out of the hole. The second group kept digging because letting go of the shovel meant not being in control and that was just too scary for them.

Let’s be honest – feeling like we are not in control is unnerving and can be scary. But the reality is, we aren’t really in control anyway. We just have this belief that we are. If you think about it – compare yourself to the size of the known universe. Do you really, honestly, believe that someone so small as yourself is actually in control compared to all the billions and billions and billions of things happening throughout the universe? That’s an incredible faith in oneself.

While this all seems simple to observe, it is important to note that when a person’s life is in chaos, the natural inclination is to try to bring order to that chaos. And most people will do that through asserting control.

Let me be clear about this – What I’m talking about isn’t just about homelessness and poverty. This phenomenon is far more widespread than that.

We can observe similar reactions and responses in businesses that are struggling, in churches, in government, relationships, and else were.

If we just take a look at the recent almost government shutdown and the “successful” vacating the Speaker of the House of Representatives we see the same pattern. A small group of extremist politicians assert control because they feel like things are out of their perceived sense of order, and that government is messy, and they aren’t getting everything they want. And so they insist on doing things their way. And when they do, it actually creates more chaos, rather than order. It’s a paradox of control.

My definition for the paradox of control is that the more one asserts control over something or someone, the more they create chaos and disorder and often a backlash that is far worse than what they were trying to control. And these folks often will then assert even more control thinking that they didn’t try to control the situation enough. But this just keeps making the situation worse. And the more one lets go of control, the more of a natural order will take shape.

When we look at populations in the world today and throughout human history, we see some patterns. There is a certain pull towards dictators and authoritarians throughout history. I think there is a variety of reasons for this. For one thing, dictators and authoritarians present themselves as strong, they offer “the” answers and give a false feeling of certainty, and they are willing to use force to impose their order on others. But in the process, they end up creating far more chaos than offering order.

All of this is founded on a set of core beliefs. I often call them the core beliefs of empire mostly because empires symbolize the epitome of control and the use of force. The creed of empire is that might makes right, that the ends justify the means, that the strong survive, the correct belief and thought is of primary importance, that all people are expendable, and that compliance and loyalty are expected but come with no long term rewards.

The interesting thing in all of this is that those that use control and those that let go of control are both seeking the same thing – order. Chaos is the opposite of order. It’s a matter of how one understands what order is. Does order mean certainty and control, or is order more about a flow and relationship and empowering all who are a part of a system?

We see this in the story of creation. God brings order out of chaos. But God doesn’t assert control and use force to make it happen, like some kind of puppet master. There is no need for God to do that.

In the process of creation, there is uncertainty. Order doesn’t mean certainty and uncertainty doesn’t automatically mean chaos. Free will adds an element of uncertainty, but it doesn’t guarantee chaos.

Order means that things can survive and go on and even thrive in unique and creative ways. Order isn’t about the ends justifying the means. It’s about the means and the ends both being important.

Those that assert control and impose their will and belief on others are acting in an unGodly way. They are ultimately agents of chaos. Their intent is to create order out of what they perceive as chaos. But instead, they create chaos out of order because they mistake uncertainty for chaos. They believe that because the world isn’t operating in their preferred controlled way, then it must be chaotic. And in so doing, they put themselves on the throne of creation, attempting to twist it and assert control over it, in order to shape it as they see fit. They become their own idol.

And every time this is tried, it ends in one (or more) of the following – failure, frustration, destruction, death, oppression, and abuse.

All asserting control does is cement what is already going on and driving it further along, like an enzyme in a chemical reaction. Asserting control just speeds up the process. 

For those of us who claim to follow Jesus, there is another way. Jesus is the example. He self-emptied himself. He let go of control. He listened. He empowered people. He healed. He set people free. In short, his attention was oriented towards shalom. Shalom is a Hebrew word with means peace, wholeness, completeness. Shalom is order in creation. Not an imposed order or a controlled order, but rather a natural order, or Godly order.

When we see what happens around us, when we watch what happens in government, when we pay attention to how businesses operate, when we are aware of how relationships function, and when we participate in religious practices and institutions, we can carry a few questions with us to help us discern if what we are encountering is Godly or something else.

Is what is happening an attempt to impose a belief or idea on others?

Are the people engaged in the activity more concerned with correct belief or the care of people?

Is what is happening oriented more towards freeing people or imposing restrictions in order to create a false sense of order?

Who is gaining in the actions that are taking place? And what are they gaining? Who is losing out and what are they losing?

Does this move us towards wholeness or towards a facade of controlled order?


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