Our Instinct to Survive and Our Need to Control
At last week’s recovery church meeting we discussed a quote from Francis Weller about the shadow times, the periods when we feel afraid and vulnerable, when it seems we have fallen down into the depths. We don’t like those times, of course, yet Weller reminds us that “down is holy ground.”  During those moments of struggle, when our assumptions and our defenses are shattered, we have the opportunity to become free. This is a good thing.
So why do we try so hard to avoid pain? Are we so desperate to feel safe?
Most of us are. After all, we look both ways when crossing the street. We lock our doors at night, we take our vitamins, we’re suspicious of strangers. Since we don’t like inconvenience, injury, illness, or death, we try to avoid them. It makes sense. We’re born with a survival instinct, which is what helps keep us alive. There’s nothing wrong with that.
We get into trouble, though, when we feel desperate. Then we get caught up in fruitless attempts to control events, to make people do what we want, to bend reality to our will. When we can’t tolerate discomfort, our fear will trap us. The more we cling to the illusion that we can control the pain of our life, the less we will open ourselves to the challenges that stretch us, that expand our spirits, that make us more holy. If we can stop trying to control our lives, we will feel better.
Fearing for Our Loved Ones
For some people, though, the thirst for control is less about keeping ourselves safe than protecting our loved ones. What if our children or spouse were hurt? What if they died? Most of us would do anything to keep our loved ones safe. They are part of us, and we cannot bear to let them go.
Yet if we really love someone, we need to be willing to let them go. We can’t manage their lives or control their destiny. Even if that were possible, we do no one a favor by taking away their autonomy.
Not even God does that.
One Sunday at a recovery church meeting, we were exploring death, decay, and God’s love. If God loves us so much, how can God stand to watch us hurt ourselves and others, over and over again? It must pain God when we turn away, abandon the divine, close off our hearts from the holy, from life, from the creatures God cherishes. Yet God allows us the freedom to make these choices.
God’s Yearning for Us
A few years ago, I met with a patient who had been active in his church, who prayed regularly, and who felt a deep connection with the divine. At least he did until he relapsed on drugs. Then all he felt was numb, ashamed, and alone. He wanted to reach out to God, to beg forgiveness, but he didn’t dare. He felt too embarrassed.
Finally, he made his way to treatment. There, we talked.
As he shared his story with me, I began to feel an impatient yearning inside me. It was as if God were jumping up and down, shouting, trying to get this young man’s attention. For years, God had given him the freedom to turn away from the divine. Now that he was close to returning to that relationship with God, it seemed God could barely contain Godself, as if God were begging this man to open his eyes and see what was before him. It is not just we who long for Spirit; Spirit longs for us, as well.
Feeling I had to do something, I gently touched the man’s knee. He stopped talking and lifted his face to look at me. I don’t remember what I said. Something about God. But I don’t think he heard my words. Instead, I think he saw something that opened his heart and allowed him to feel God’s love. He came home again.
Reaching Out, But Letting Go
You might think that, if what I experienced was really God, then God was going to a lot of effort to get that young man to turn back to God. But God wasn’t making that young man think or feel or do anything. God was maybe making me feel and do, but that wasn’t about me. If I had been a conduit, it was only what I signed up for when I became a chaplain. Every day, I pray that I get out of the way and let God do the work. Sometimes that actually happens.
So I don’t think God was controlling anyone. If the man hadn’t looked up, God might felt disappointed, but God wouldn’t have punished him or turned away from him. God would simply continue to wait.
When things don’t go the way we want them to, sometimes our hearts break. Apparently, that’s true for God, as well. Yet if God isn’t going to force us to make the choices God wants us to, then why do we think we have the right to force our loved ones to do our will? If we are to honor the integrity and the dignity of our loved ones, we must give them the freedom, even if their choices hurt themselves or others.
How many of us want to do that? Yet to live fully, to let our loved ones live fully, we must give up control. We must risk hurt. And we will hurt. It’s the way of life.
So how do we cope?
The Lessons We Learn
As children, we learn how to navigate the world. When we grow up in loving, nurturing households where adults teach us to honor our emotions without being overwhelmed by them, where we discover that we can care about ourselves as well as about others, and where we learn to communicate with respect and kindness, we do pretty well. We figure out how to make friends, keep a job, manage a household. Though we want things to go our way, when they don’t, we’re okay. We don’t fall apart when something goes wrong. We know friends will help us, and when we must, we can soothe ourselves.
Few people are so blessed. Most of us grew up learning to fear judgment and hide our feelings. As soon as we could walk, sometimes as soon as we were born, we were made to feel ashamed. Because we are all unique, and because our childhoods are different, we learned different coping strategies. Some of us became abusive; some learned to expect abuse. We shut down; we lashed out. Instead of believing we could be okay because we knew how to grieve and move through our pain, we thought that to survive, we had to avoid that pain. So we tried to control our environment, to force those around us to do our will. We thought that would make everything okay.
But it didn’t, and it doesn’t, and it won’t.
Desperation and Manipulation
One patient I knew had lost everything. Because his health was bad, he’d lost his job, then his home, and finally his family. Partly it was his fault. In his desperate effort to control his life, he’d pushed people away. For instance, if people resisted helping him, he’d try to make them feel so guilty they’d help him, anyway, or he’d recite a litany of reasons why what he wanted made sense, implying that any rational person would see things the same way. He called it “manipulation,” and he saw it as a strength.
Such bullying might have worked when he’d been a child. That’s why we develop the coping strategies we do, because at one time in our lives, they helped us survive.
Nor were his strategies all bad. He was stuck in an uncaring system, one that tries to control us with unreasonable rules and regulations, that limits resources so only the lucky, the relentless, or the cruel survive. At least this man understood about not giving up. Yet his way of coping also got in his way.
Unlearning What We Know
This patient was trying to force an uncaring world to do his bidding. Much of what he railed against was indeed unfair, but he wasn’t going to change it by arguing with nurses or social workers. If he wanted to collaborate with others who were trying to change those systems, great, but first he had to get stable enough to get out of bed. To do that, he had to accept reality as it was and play by the rules that existed in the institutions where he found himself. Not everyone or everything can be manipulated.
Yet this man didn’t know what to do instead. No one had ever taught him. I did what I could to encourage him to find new ways of being in the world. When I saw an opening, I challenged his view of reality, and sometimes he listened. Overall, though, my job was not to change him. It was to honor who he was, respect his right to be himself, and affirm his ability to find a way to be all right no matter what happened.
Maybe I gave him something that would one day enable him to become free of his past. That would be nice. His greatest teacher, though, would be his pain. The disaster we try to avoid is often what we need to become free. That is why “down is holy ground.”
Falling Off the Mountain
Another patient I knew had fallen from a mountaintop, almost slipping into the abyss. She shattered bones, but her sense of safety had been shattered, as well. She felt traumatized. Her world had turned upside down. Anxiety overwhelmed her; she felt despair.
The helplessness she felt is terrifying. When we feel so completely out of control, we try to create order where we can. Maybe we resort to manipulation. Perhaps we panic. We do what we can to survive and avoid such disasters in the future.
This is natural. None of us want to fall off a mountain. We don’t want to get sick and become homeless. So we do what we can to hold onto what we have.
Yet what we fear has a way of happening to us. Friends die, we get sick, we have accidents, the world erupts in protests and fire. No matter how hard we try to stay safe, we are vulnerable, some of us more than others. Some of us, for instance, have very little cushion. When even small things go wrong, they can upend our world.
If, on the other hand, we have lots of money or have a large circle of friends, we can get through hard times more easily. We need not worry, because we can cope.
How Do We Cope?
One way or another, we will all fall off the mountain. If nothing else, we will all die. If we can manage to find peace amid the chaos, we might find a gift on the other side of our pain. We might learn to accept our helplessness with grace and equanimity.
How do we do that?
One way is to remind ourselves that we will be well, that, as Julian of Norwich wrote, “all manner of thing shall be well.”  Another way is to repeat some phrases from the Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein, “May I meet this moment fully; may I meet it as a friend.”  But sometimes our heart is so heavy, nothing works. Sometimes all we can do is grieve.
I have sat with many dying people and comforted many bereft loved ones. Often, when we first discover that we haven’t long to live, we resist. The bargaining, the anger, the grasping at unreliable cures, are ways we try to control what cannot be controlled.
Then, as we accept the reality of what is to come, we start to think of all we will lose. The dying must give up everything they have ever owned, ever loved, ever known. As one patient put it, “No one helps me figure out how to let my life die,” yet that is what she was having to do. Let her life die.
“It hurts to my toenails,” she said, and she wasn’t just talking about her body. Her heart hurt, her spirit hurt, her brain hurt. She was grieving.
Letting Go Is Not Indifference
In such a situation, we cope by falling into reality, by letting go, by giving up control. Once we stop flailing, we can float. Once we’ve hit bottom, we can start climbing out of the pit. “Down is holy ground,” but only because, once freed, we may find we can fly.
Can we give up our need to control our lives and the lives of our loved ones? When people we care about get sick or die or leave us, or when we face the end of our own lives, can we remain open-hearted, facing the pain without running away? Can we risk hurt in order to live?
Love takes courage, because when we truly love, we must also let go. Instead of controlling our loved ones, we let them make their own choices. Of course, we try to save those who are injured, or offer help to friends who lose their jobs, or comfort those who have been abandoned. It’s not that we stand by and watch while people fall down mountains without reaching out a hand to try and stop them. If we can, we haul them up. Letting go is not the same as indifference.
In his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,” Wendell Berry describes the anxiety we feel when we fear for our lives or our children’s lives. At those times, he says, he makes his way to the water, lies down on the grass, feels nature’s peace, its grace. Though they are not visible now, up above the stars shine, waiting to spread their light again when night falls. Despair need not be the end of the story.
Yet we cannot get to that place beyond despair, that place of peace and grace, until we can allow ourselves to relax our limbs as we lie on the earth, to let go of our striving and our planning. After all, as it says in Proverbs, “Man proposes, God disposes” (Prov 19:21). We try to make things go our way, but things have a way of doing what they want, regardless.
Freedom from Fear
Sometimes we need to be in control, such as when we’re driving a car or operating on someone’s heart. At other times, we need to relinquish control to something bigger than ourselves, whether that be the universe, time, God, nature, eternity, or a faith in wholeness.
The woman who almost slipped into the abyss, who ended up with shattered limbs and a traumatized heart, could, at first, not see a way out. But with time, she rediscovered her strength and learned to listen to that still, small voice within her. Then her spirit began to heal, and from her pain and suffering, she found a peace and a grace beyond any she had known before.
When we are falling off the mountain, we clutch at whatever we can. We grab at gravel, dig in our toes. It makes sense to do what we can to survive. In the end, though, gravity will take us. Sometimes the only thing we can do is let it. Then, once we have landed at the bottom of the hill, we discover we have landed on holy ground. Bruised and battered, we fear we will never rise again, yet with time, we will realize we have been caught. We are being held. Having fallen and survived, we might even wake up one day and discover that we have become free from fear.
In faith and fondness,
- Weller, Francis, In the Absence of the Ordinary: Essays in a Time of Uncertainty, https://www.francisweller.net/books.html, accessed 10/10/20.
- Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2011, 14.
- Boorstein, Sylvia, “Stuck at the Airport?,” Lion’s Roar, March 3, 2018, https://www.lionsroar.com/bad-day-airport/, accessed 10/12/20.
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