Building Your Spiritual Home

Giving Up Control

Ever since I was little, being in control was very important. My mother hated chaos, and it was really important to keep her calm. I came to be good at it, with good self-control- I’m one of those who can resist eating the toll house cookie until I’ve answered all my messages. I was also successful at controlling the externals of my life. I was the one who arranged a tennis foursome and called for the court time every week. Then I reminded each of my partners. I organized our once a month cooking crew at the homeless shelter and called each person to remind them of their assignment. Being organized and reliable was a pillar of my life.

But it had a price. By age 30, I had high blood pressure. Some years later, I took a course in art therapy with some other therapists. We actually learned to paint, not too badly. Once I painted a picture of a tomato with two vines around it, squeezing it. When I looked at what I had painted, I realized that what the vine did to the tomato I was doing to my own blood vessels. I could see all the ways I was putting pressure on myself. I was trying to manage and control too many things. I resolved to stop.

Stopping meant changing a lot of things. But I was determined to practice letting go and to tolerate the anxiety of being more helpless. The clearest example of this was my behavior at the beach. Since I was young, I would dive out through the crashing waves, pick a good one and ride in, as if my body was a surfboard. I was proud of this skill and my mastery over those big waves. But now I resolved to just lie in the water and let the waves throw me head over heels, or roll me, or whatever, and get used to being tossed around by fate. I was very aware that this was my physical metaphor for letting go. I practiced it for several summers.

I stopped calling my tennis foursome, and sure enough, people forgot and in a few months, we stopped playing. I told myself that was okay. Maybe it would save my life.

At home, I was used to arriving after work, dealing with the chaos of needs that waited inside the door, getting tense, annoyed, but remaining calm and helpful, and quietly resentful. Two events changed all that. One morning we agreed on a picnic after work. When I came home nothing had been done. My wife was fed up with the kids who were fighting with each other, yuck! The old me would have been grimly determined, taken charge and gotten us out of the house. The new me had a tantrum: “I hate this family! Everyone’s yelling, you can’t do anything! I quit!” A real tantrum like I’d never done before! A remarkable thing happened. My twelve year old Laura said, “Now Daddy, calm down. Why don’t you get a blanket. Mom, you and I can make the sandwiches. Julie, get the basket”. It was startling and profoundly reassuring. If I wasn’t in control, it didn’t mean disaster would follow.

Not that I was taking advantage or anything, but a while later, on my way home, instead of girding up for the inevitable recounting of the day’s disasters, I noted that I was tired and didn’t want to take care of one more problem. I entered, and, instead of waiting to hear about everyone’s issues, I led off with, “I’m exhausted. What a day!” The same miracle repeated itself. Daughter Laura, “Sit down Daddy”. Daughter Julie, “Put your feet on this pillow. Would you like some tea?” Wife Linda, “Do you want to talk about it?” Incredible! Not only did the Earth not fall apart, but everyone rose to the occasion and all was well!

For many years I have been working at taking less responsibility. My Mantra is Rainer Maria Rilke’s “God doesn’t care who does the flying. He only cares that there be flying”. If anyone else is willing to do something, it’s going to be fine. I need to relax and trust the universe.

I went too far. A few years ago, my wife and I set off to do some hiking in England. I had vowed not to be so compulsive about checking every three minutes to make sure I had the passports and tickets. After we went through security, an inspector came running after me, “Don’t you want your passports?” and handed them to me. I had been relaxed, and now I had only to thank God for watching out for me. In England, I changed two hundred dollars into pounds. On leaving the bank, the teller met me at the door and handed me an envelope with the five hundred dollars I had left at her counter. Thank God again! After we arrived back in the states, I got a call from the airport. I had left my wife’s passport at immigration! Thank God again.

From all this I concluded that I was hopelessly absent minded, but that it was all right because the Universe so obviously would take care of me. I liked relaxing, and it all turned out okay in the end.

Later that week I had the following dream: Linda and I were leaving the White House to go to the airport. I was Mr. President. We were dragging our bags. There was no limousine! We were carrying our own bags. What was wrong with my administrative assistant? Where was he anyway?? Someone in the crowd outside volunteered to drive us, but I was stewing about needing to fire him and hire someone competent. When I woke, the message was clear. Relaxing is fine, but I do need to take better care of the details. Since then I have remained relaxed on trips but haven’t lost anything in the past four years.

Being less controlling is probably the clearest example of a planned change in my way of being. I saw a problem, vowed to change it and worked on it in small and large ways, very consciously for years. When I went too far, that became clear and I could adjust back a bit. The change process is often subtle, only becoming clear in retrospect.

1) What are some of your strong character traits?
2) How do they help you in your life?
3) Do you also pay a price for these traits?
4) If you wanted to moderate one of these traits, how might you begin?






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