How I spend my time, what books I read, where I get my news, who I talk to and allow to influence me, these are the things I always want to manage (and micromanage). This is clearly a huge factor in my tendency to procrastinate. I don’t want to do that, so I put it off, forever. Of course, the truth of our psychology is that I am not my own person and never could be despite my protestations to the contrary. Too bad that never sinks in unless it’s forced on me.
Occasionally, I recognize my desire for constant control. For example, when I catch a stomach bug and my diet is limited to chicken noodle soup, I feel powerless. I think of how much I want a cheeseburger or a piece of pizza and tell myself, never again will you take that delicious food for granted. You will cherish every bite. Of course, when my health returns, it’s not long before I’m taking pizza for granted again, and one piece can quickly turn into four. The same goes for my prayer life. I turn to God most consistently when I find myself in need. Then, when the sailing is smooth, I take it easy and let the devotion time slide.
Karl Ove Knausgaard made me think about this idea of control in a wonderful passage from the second volume of his six-part, autobiographical novel. He breaks his collarbone in a friendly soccer game and, struggling to keep up with his kids and complete daily tasks, he reflects on how the injury has left him feeling helpless.
It was also a strange experience for me during those weeks. Not being able to lift or carry, and finding it difficult to sit down and get up, gave me a sense of helplessness that went beyond physical restrictions. Suddenly I had no authority, no strength, and the feeling of control I had taken for granted until now became manifest. I sat still, I was passive, and it was as though I had lost control of my surroundings. So, had I always felt I had power over them and controlled them? Yes, I must have. I didn’t need to make any use of the power and the control, it was enough to know that it existed, it permeated everything I did and everything I thought. Now it was gone, and I saw it for the first time.
That’s the way “control” works in our everyday life. It permeates everything we do whether we’re conscious of it or not. Flannery O’Connor’s stories often feature moments of violent grace, where her sometimes ugly protagonists’ desperate need is made apparent and they passively experience the terrifying beauty of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Only when our powerlessness is shoved in our faces are we forced to respond to it. This reminds me of a couple of great lines from Law & Gospel:
“The pressure to self-justify has been removed, whether we believe it or not, and it has been replaced with freedom: the freedom to die and yet to live, to fail and yet succeed. The freedom to play, to serve, to love, to wait, to laugh, to cry, to sit idle – even to get busy.”
Knausgaard’s response to his loss of control echoes those words. He talks about his writing, his daily work, as something he, in sight of this lack of control, got busy doing again, but this time with a qualifier: he was humbler in the task and had an added perspective. Even as a novelist, with the capacity to create a world entirely of his own making and exercise total autonomy on the page, he found that he was powerless. Everything, he realized, was out of his control. That’s a moment of grace, and I think his attitude and devotion to the task reveal this freedom from self-justification, the freedom, even, to get busy:
Even stranger was the fact that the same applied to writing. Also with it I had a sense of power and control, which disappeared with the broken collarbone. Suddenly, I was under the text, suddenly it had power over me, and it was only with the greatest effort of will that I managed to write the five pages a day I had set myself as a goal. But I managed, I managed that, too. I hated every syllable, every word, every sentence, but not liking what I was doing didn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. One year and it would be over, and then I would be able to write about something else.