The Life You Can't Control
Sometimes the Christmas lights stay up just shy of St. Patrick’s Day.
Sometimes curiosity compels you to play back one of your past sermons. You recognize the timbre, strings of words even, but experience the audio-like transmissions from another world.
And sometimes you pause your labors long enough to see how a job you thought would take five years is going on 15.
No one really asks me for advice, a blessing and a curse. A blessing since my current certainty resembles October light twenty minutes to dusk—existent but fading and folded into the cold. A curse when little prophecies pile up and you don’t know why or who they belong to.
Circumstances outweigh even the most careful plans. So we measure our lives in how we respond to reality, not our success at shaping it.
But if I have just one proverb to offer any room, it might go a little something like this: Circumstances outweigh even the most careful plans. So we measure our lives in how we respond to reality, not our success at shaping it.
Keep good American company, and you’ll be asked to do a form of math as warped as it is elusive. At the end of the equation, destinies manifested for yourself and others. Before the equal sign, numbers that stand in for control and opportunities seized, for fortunes passed down to you and right places at right times.
But what values are assigned to each? How do we account for a thousand little factors that are impossible to anticipate? These minor details stand between you and the holiday decorations, rearrange your theology right under your nose, cause you to linger longer than you meant to stay, keep you from solving for x.
Forty-four chapters into his masterwork, the prophet Isaiah unspools a devastating observation. He methodically exposes the madness of idols, of men and women worshiping handmade gods of wood and metal. How much more nonsense rests upon idols we build to our own control? The clay we mold forms the image of hands gripping hands gripping hands all the way down.
Too often we pray “My will be done,” then set about making it so, willing ourselves not to see how much of the world we miss and mishandle. Parents mow certain lawns to appease certain neighbors while living on certain streets in order to usher their kids across the thresholds of certain schools. The future is bright—and, well, certain—they suppose, ignoring the very nature of hands, their inability to guarantee outcomes and still do no harm.
There is something holy about grieving the life you believed you’d have.
Spouses try to change each other, mistaking control for love. Runners seek to replicate every right step a thousand times, but cannot command pavement cracks or sloping angles. And writers craft best-laid plans for their Great American Novels. But the wisest bow in reverence to timing, taste and other gods unwilling to be tamed.
Even the Serenity Prayer falls short, not so much in the well-meaning words offered (“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change ...” is a good starting block) but the way we speak them. We confess our need to let some matters go, but still pray as if we must gather other realities until our arms are full.
There is something holy about grieving the life you believed you’d have. Once I imagined standing up for “Saturday Night Live” goodnights, waving at America. I thought by now I’d be beckoned across the country to speak my piece in halls older than my opinions. I pictured knowing the misty kiss and Douglas fir sanctuaries of Northwest forests, rather than counting my change one more time and staying home.
And I thought about my thinking, saw my ideas forming a line the way my voice professor taught me to place one note after the next clear as bells; instead I know twelve-tone anxieties, melodies pulled from order but with too many skips and sharps to please the ear.
Settling into sleep with clipped breaths and eyelid burdens, I rarely picture breaking big anymore. My last waking thoughts turn to an unwritten book—something maybe 500 of my closest friends would read—and the words I might leave on the dedication page or in the acknowledgments.
There, I would pen an inheritance to my son, something like eternal wisdom for a boy who couldn’t choose me but let me wrap his tiny arms in mine in an act of pure faith.
To S.: We are both living proof life doesn’t turn out how you choose. But here we are together.
Giving up on the illusion of control leaves us unexpected loves.
The great forces of nature lie beyond our control. Trees and clouds conspire to shape the canopies over our heads. Lines of poems break where they want to; even the poets will tell you. Two lips meet two lips and their movement is ingrained, not choreographed. We cannot exercise control over these phenomena—only something like dominion, which dampens their beauty.
Giving up on the illusion of control leaves us unexpected loves. When overdue Christmas lights meet March skies, they create something new in the night. Learning you cannot actually control what you believe is a gift. Overstay your welcome, and your body learns to bend around every corner of your neighborhood, to memorize—and cherish—the placement of each tree.
Turn the screws, and I’ll tell you God is in control. But I’m so damn tired of trafficking in the word itself, control. It’s not that I believe in disorder. Right this minute, complex systems cohere, keeping ants and poets and rivers and songbirds in motion. They keep my cells from exploding. I know this, but barely understand how any of it works.
Control always comes by degrees, always implies success and frustration, providence and blame. I’m done thinking about how and when and why God is in control—and whether that’s good for me. I simply want God to be present, to feel real in every bend and break. Give me divine presence and I’m sure to weather the unanswered questions and disappointments.
And that’s all I want to be for you—present. Not a soothsayer or holy decoder ring, not a man who swears he’d fix this for you if only he could. Just someone well-versed in the holy rites of showing up and taking space. I think the best gift we give each other sounds something like this: We are living proof life doesn’t turn out how you choose. But here we are together.