Control: The capacity to manage, master, dominate, exercise power over, regulate, influence, curb, suppress, or restrain.
Control is a rich and resonant word, a word that evokes strong feelings, a word that is familiar to the tongue, for it touches on lifelong concerns with power and helplessness, with freedom and limitations, with doing and being done to, with who's on top, with whether we see ourselves as someone who goes out and gets what we want or as someone who, for the most part, takes what we get. Control is a hard-edged word; it has -- at least it seems to have -- no poetry in it. It's something we want, need, seize, fear, lose, give up. In our feelings about our place in the world, in how we define ourselves, in our personal and professional relationships, we -- consciously or unconsciously, positively or negatively -- are constantly dealing with issues of control.
Do you think that control is always a negative concept? I'd like to persuade you of another view. Do you think that concerns with control do not apply to how you live or who you are? I'll argue that they apply both to me and to you. For when we can't walk one more step and yet we keep walking, when we learn something new by practicing every day, when we give ourselves over to blistering rage or to passion, when we fall off our diet and onto a crème brûlée, when we say we can't help what we do or resent what we do or deplore what we do and yet we still do it, when we force our nearest and dearest to do it our way, we are -- though perhaps we don't know it, or perhaps we call it by another name -- taking, or giving up, or abusing control.
We are constantly dealing with issues of control.
Control enough to shape our own fate -- or are we shaped by our genes?
Control enough to master a skill, to work toward a goal, to finish what we start.
Control of our sexuality.
Control enough to manage on our own.
Control enough to hold ourselves up to certain moral standards and to hold ourselves responsible when we fall short.
Control within our marital relationships.
Control within our professional relationships.
Control of our adult children -- don't they need us to tell them how to live their lives?
Control as something we sometimes surrender, either by choice or necessity.
Control in the wake of misfortune.
Control of our death.
Whether or not we believe we possess it, whether we rush to embrace it or claim to shun it, most of us want some control -- sufficient control, sometimes total control -- over ourselves, and over other people, and over the events with which we're involved.
Our feelings about control are expressed in our early sense of competence or powerlessness, in our power struggles during adolescence, in where and with whom and how often we make love, in how much aching regret and unfinished business we'll be dealing with when we die. Our beliefs about having control determine whether or not our small and large losses defeat us, how easily we quit, and how hard we try. Our strategies of control, when the point of control is to get our own way, include intimidation, recrimination, negotiation, the laying on of guilt, persuasion, flattery -- and repetition, sometimes known as nagging. Our relinquishing of control may be a bitter failure, a facing of hard realities, or a willing, indeed eager, acquiescence.
Thinking about control can explain why "helpless" Kathy calls all the shots in the marriage; why Tom keeps losing job after job after job; why control-freak Vicky has to dine at precisely 7:00 P.M.; why criminals and other bad guys insist that, although they did it, and although they agree that it was wrong to do it, it isn't their fault. Thinking about control can explain why we let ourselves remain in a hopeless relationship; how an offer of help may be a power ploy; why persistence isn't invariably a virtue; and when we're allowed to enjoy the pleasure of saying, "This is not my responsibility."
In some of their definitions the word "control" and the word "power" are synonymous. I'll sometimes be using them interchangeably. I'll also be making the point -- I'll be making this point repeatedly -- that while most of us endeavor to mold the events of our lives to meet our personal needs, the control we exercise over ourselves, over others, and over what happens to us is almost always highly imperfect control.
In writing this book, I've drawn on the work of biological scientists, social scientists, psychoanalysts, philosophers, and others who, directly and sometimes very indirectly, examine the multiple aspects of control. I've drawn, as well, on public reports and (with identities masked) on private case histories, and on the truths to be found in fiction and poems. In addition I've talked with children and parents, husbands and wives and lovers, victims and survivors, employees and bosses, focusing on people whose place in society and the economy allows for the possibility of control. And I've had some things to say about my own control concerns, both past and pending.
Don't look to this book for "Ten Easy Steps to Improving Your Self-Control," or "How to Get Your Husband or Wife to Obey." I'm afraid you will have to seek elsewhere for prescriptions. But I'm hoping to persuade you that the ways we deal with control can enrich or diminish us, and can shape our relationships for good or for ill. I'm hoping to show why experiences you've known by other names can be called "control." I'm asking you to recognize (as I, with some shudders and sighs, have been learning to do) when the control we claim is too much or too little. And I trust that this recognition, this greater awareness, will enable us to make freer and wiser choices.
For I continue to believe that consciousness helps. I continue to believe that knowing where it is we're going really helps. I believe that constructive change begins when we're finally able to say, "There I go again," or "That's what I'm doing." I also believe that by understanding how issues of control pervade our lives, we eventually may achieve a better balancing of power and surrender, better -- albeit still imperfect -- control.
Copyright © 1998 by Judith Viorst