Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Illusion of Control

'We are most deeply asleep at the switch when we fancy we control any switches at all.'
--Annie Dillard. She's perhaps most famous for her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which won a Pulitzer Prize more than 30 years ago. But she's written so much more that's eminently worth reading. Do yourself a favor and dip into a bit of it sometime, and then come back and let us know what you thought.

15 Comments:

At 5:17 PM, OpenID sherrihenkin said...

This hits the spot today! I'm definitely not in control of any switches. This quote brought to mind read a related idea, "Resign as general manager of the universe." (Don't recall the author, sorry.)

 
At 6:21 PM, Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

If there is no control and I don't believe in destiny then that only leaves us with inevitability I guess.

 
At 7:51 PM, Anonymous Lou said...

It is the sleep I want to control not the switch.

 
At 9:27 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks, everyone. I like that line about resigning as GM of the universe, Sherri. I used to have that problem of thinking I could or should control all kinds of things, until reality hit, and a kind of zen acceptance took hold.

And Jim, to the contrary, I don't think it's inevitability as much as it is we ought to stop trying so much to control outcomes, and instead do what we can to take care of our own business, and enjoy whatever else comes to us as it does and when it does.

And Lou, you just have a case of what's called Young Dad syndrome. It'll pass, soon enough. Good to see your name back here, though.

 
At 9:27 AM, Blogger Kim said...

John, someone had to remind me today to remember, "it's not all about me", and I think the ability to relinquish control AND accept that indeed is a key to peace.

 
At 9:31 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Kim, I think those two thoughts are really just two sides of the same coin. Imagining that we can control everything, a notion that dies hard and late for some of us, is really just another way of imagining that the world revolves around us. Some of my much smarter and more self-aware friends came to understand that's not true relatively early in life. I awoke to the reality only somewhat recently.

 
At 3:31 PM, Blogger Diane Vogel Ferri said...

I was a big fan of Tinker's creek - so inspiring when I was a teen. But her last book The Mayfairs had the most ridiculous bloated language I've ever read. Just because you once won a prize doesn't mean they should publish anything you write.

 
At 4:24 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for that insight, Diane. I have indeed heard that about her more recent writing, which I might attribute to the fact that she's at least splitting her attention these days between teaching and writing. And there's always a price to pay for that immersion in the academic industrial complex. Don't get our guy Art started about that subject...

 
At 10:44 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

*ears perking up* Did I hear someone mention my name?

*smile*

No, I'll be good. Well, mostly. :)

I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that academia has poisoned Dillard's well, though I haven't read this latest book, so I don't really know. It happens to many good people, though.

I have read most everything Dillard wrote up until recently, and all of her non-fiction, which I have generally preferred to her fiction. (My own bias, basically; I find few of the great creative non-fiction writers are able to be as good as pure fiction. Loren Eiseley was a rara avis, being a master of the natural history essay AND memoir AND poetry. Few others are as able.)

I do recommend Dillard's earlier non-fiction work, which has stood the test of time, in my opinion. Some of her insights are relevant more than ever now.

verification word: antena

 
At 10:52 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Okay, about the main topic:

Dillard is completely right about how control is an illusion. Most people believe they can control everything in their lives. There's even a belief in the New Age that "you create your own reality."

The problem with that is: so does everyone else.

Which means sometimes you creating your own reality is in conflict with someone else creating theirs, and they can come into direct conflict, or both stall.

William S. Burroughs wrote a great routine in his late novel "The Western Lands" about the forces of Control. His fiction as always is hallucinatory and bizarre even as it is profound and philosophically deep. "And what is behind the computers? Control, of course. Shut them off, they are as radioactive as an old joke." Burroughs viewed Control as a totalitarian force within human nature that needed to be kept in balance with the forces of anarchy; very similar in some ways to Nietzsche's formulation of the Dionysian and Apollonian tension in society and the arts. Too much Control, and we get the State in Control. Too little control, and we get chaos.

My martial arts teacher used to talk about mastery, rather than control. I think he was correct in this. His constant message was that you can't control the world, you can't other people, you can't control acts of god—but you CAN master yourself, your own responses, your own reactions, and you CAN master your habitual fears and reactionary impulses by knowing what they are and bringing them under conscious mastery. Mastery doesn't try to control anything; it works to master the self, which is the true goal of the spiritual warrior, and to work in alliance with the world, rather than try to use force to try to make the world conform to our desires and expectations. Mastery recognizes that control is an illusion, and at the same time I CAN master how I deal with that.

 
At 11:09 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I like the idea of mastery rather than control. That's the essence of it all, I think. And while those two concepts can seem virtually alike, they're really not. Mastery is all about focusing on the process rather than the outcome. Of course, when the process is good, and forever being refined and improved, good outcomes tend to be the result.

 
At 10:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Art, that was a comment I have saved for posterity on my hard drive, and in my personal book of quotes. I liked that VERY much. Thank you.

After reading several of Annie's more recent books, I was left wondering if she was coming at reality like she had to have all the answers (since she IS a Pulitzer Prize winner) instead of allowing herself to discover things in the simple, humble way she did in Tinker Creek. It felt she often had a framework in her mind and tried to impose it upon reality.

 
At 3:56 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Being so prominent and accomplished now doesn't always allow her to approach new material with what Art's Zen tradition would call "beginner's mind."

 
At 9:29 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Those are good insights, and I think you've outlined exactly how beginner's mind can harden into expert's mind, which tends to think it knows everything (have all the answers), and thus tends to force that worldview on the world, in an act of control. As opposed to beginner's mind, which sees what's actually there, and works with that.

You've put your finger on how mastery focuses more on the process than the outcome. I want to mention writer George Leonard, who's written several excellent books about process and education. His book "The Silent Pulse" is one of my desert island books, which I would take with me into such a retreat. Leonard also wrote a book specifically on "Mastery," its many shapes, and how to accomplish the process of enacting it. Perhaps not coincidentally, Leonard studied the same martial art that I did, Aikido. I recommend "Mastery" highly. Here's a pretty good review that I found online:

http://www.vnoel.com/Book-Reviews/Mastery-George-Leonard.html

 
At 9:33 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I'll be reading The Silent Pulse right soon. I already like it just because of that great title. Thanks for sharing yet another non-household-named writer who's eminently worth reading.

 

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