Your flight has been cancelled due to circumstances beyond our control … This store will be closed until further notice due to circumstances beyond our control … Unemployment is rising due to circumstances beyond our control …
Question: Which circumstances are not beyond our control? Isn’t it the very nature of circumstances – favourable or unfavourable – to be beyond our control? Aren’t circumstances things that shape us, things we react to, rather than things we create?
Courtesy of the global financial crisis (I’m not yet on friendly enough terms with it to use the chirpy GFC), we’re once again being reminded of just how many things are beyond our control: the greed of others; the slackening demand for our resources; the fragility of underregulated capitalism.
This is hardly news. Wasn’t the threat of international terrorism beyond our control? And climate change? (Well … we shall have to wait and see.) But you don’t have to think on so grand a scale: nothing in human history encourages the idea that the important things in our lives – especially our relationships – are ever under control or that "getting my life under control" has ever been a realistic goal.
The yearning for control has become a kind of modern madness. Stressed and destabilised by the rate of change, we have been looking in the wrong place for a solution to our anxieties and insecurities.
It’s true that the rate of change has been accelerating at an uncomfortable pace. We’ve reinvented the institution of marriage, transformed the nature of family life (25 per cent of Australian families are now single-parent families, for instance), sent the birthrate tumbling to an all-time low, shrunk our households, felt the rumble of economic restructure, widened the gulf between advantage and disadvantage, rewritten our labour market statistics (especially those involving female participation and part-time work), been swept up in an communication technology revolution that has changed the way we live and work, re-examined the very meaning of "Australian" … all in the space of less than 30 years.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that so many people feel as if they’re trapped on a runaway train, or that our consumption of antidepressants has tripled in the past decade, or that about 25 per cent of young Australians are suffering serious psychological distress, or that the incidence of binge drinking and serious assault has increased markedly over this period. What humans deeply crave, after all, is stability and predictability; we love ritual and repetition. So why wouldn’t we have some difficulty with threats to our sense of security or identity?
Some of us responded to heightened anxiety with positive action: we can’t clean up the world, but let’s clean up the bush, paint the school, join a choir, buy a hybrid car. Others gave in to a kind of acquiescence in the face of things that might once have scandalised them: state-sponsored torture and child abuse carried on in our name in the infamous Baxter detention centre; the AWB kickbacks; the erosion of civil liberties through anti-terrorism legislation.
Many of us responded by retreating into our shells. We disengaged. We turned away from a big picture that was too dark and daunting and focused instead on the miniatures of our personal and domestic lives. We became obsessed about body shape, teeth, wrinkles. We went in for Botox, tattoos and body-piercing. We threw ourselves into home renovations. We racked up record levels of debt to finance a mad materialist binge, using self-indulgence as a form of insulation from our anxieties. We hunted for schools that would "control" our children were willing to pay big money to send them there.
Our social attitudes toughened. We welcomed legislation that we thought might "get things back under control". We urged judges to be tougher on criminals, and governments to introduce more mandatory sentencing. We became less compassionate, less tolerant, more prejudiced. Some of us adopted a dogmatic, hard-line fundamentalism, in religion, economics, environmentalism or medicine and psychology. We welcomed the sense of control that certainty brings, no matter how delusional.
Whether it was self-indulgence, fundamentalism or regulationism, the underlying motivation was the same: it was all about control. It was as if we were saying: "I can’t control the big picture, so I’ll focus on the things I can control."
Yet these are self-defeating strategies if they are based on the premise that life – whether on a large or small scale – is controllable. Sure, we can "control" the colour of our bathroom tiles, but if we think this means we are taking control of our lives, we are caught in a dangerous spiral of escapism.
Our obsession with control has another, more subtle face. In response to a growing sense of chaos and uncertainty, some of us are seeking refuge in the embrace of those twin seducers, "excellence" and "happiness" – magic code-words (like the word "control" itself) favoured by the growing membership of the cult of perfectionism.
This cult fosters an idea that’s bound to make us restless: however beautiful something is, or however happy we are, however affluent, however contented, there’s some even more wonderful possibility that we can only imagine (though Hollywood or a glossy magazine might grant us a glimpse of it).
When we’re in serious control mode, we’re tempted to strive even harder for the perfections that seem to be eluding us. We’re drawn to the idea that the ultimate form of control would be to achieve some gold standard of excellence in everything we do – from romance to sport.
What parent, in this current climate, would dare send their child to a school that wasn’t a centre of excellence for something? What organisation – from an international mining company to your local gym – would not claim to pursue excellence? (I idly wonder if I’ll ever come across a centre for mediocrity.)
From time to time, we hear alarming tales of religious cults that seduce people away from their partners and families. Yet how many relationships have foundered because one partner was seduced by the mad cult of perfectionism?
Perfectionism both feeds and feeds off the culture of control. Why can’t I have the perfect marriage? And if it has to end, why can’t I have the perfect divorce? (Imagine the pressure on the kids, in both cases.)
Why can’t my child have the perfect teacher at the perfect school? Why don’t we plan the perfect holiday? Where can I get a perfect latte? We’ve already been introduced to the notion of "the perfect storm" … perhaps we’re now in the privileged position of being witnesses to a perfect economic meltdown.
Those involved in the so-called "helping professions", along with the authors of all those self-help tomes, are at risk of encouraging this utopian madness. "I wish I could get my life under control" might be a popular cry, but it’s a symptom of a misunderstanding of what life is about. How easily we forget that life is for living, not for controlling.
Human relationships are inherently messy because they are driven more by emotional than rational factors – and thank goodness for that. (Marry a computer if you want the other kind of relationship.) Because relationships are unpredictable and ultimately impossible to control, so are families, communities and organisations.
Why did we ever think that such a relentless period of social dislocation and economic upheaval would not take its toll? Have we been putting too much emphasis on positive outcomes and not enough on the process of living well? Thinking positively is all very well – better than thinking negatively, no doubt. But thinking realistically has even more to commend it: to be realistic is to acknowledge that the richness of life lies in its contrasts, its light and shade, and in our capacity to experience and deal with the full spectrum of human emotions and responses.
The current preoccupation with happiness places more emphasis on pleasure than on the ancient ideas from which it sprang: virtuous living with a rich sense of purpose and full engagement with the world. In its modern, rather vacuous meaning, happiness only seems to make sense by contrast with sadness. That’s why you so often hear parents remark that all they want for their children is that they be happy. (Is that all you want for them, I want to ask. Do you really want them to be emotionally disadvantaged and deprived?)
In the next breath, of course, those same parents will assert that "we grow through pain". Yet they’ll go to extreme lengths to minimise their child’s risk of pain (let alone pain itself) and when pain comes in the form of loss or disappointment, they’ll be far more intent on "moving on" than "growing through it".
It’s the same with failure – another reliable sign that life is not under control. We know failure is a more effective teacher than success when it comes to learning what it means to be human, so why don’t we value failure more highly when it happens? Why do we interpret failure as a sign of inadequacy when it’s such a crucial part of the process of growing up?
Winners might be grinners, but losers are learners. Don’t we owe it to our children – and to each other – to avoid making false promises about what life has on offer? Shouldn’t we be more open about what’s involved in a healthy, balanced life?
Optimism is a great trait to possess, but only if it can be kept in its place when the circumstances call for a different perspective, a different expectation. (Ask a dying person how they feel about visitors trying to sound upbeat.) In many ways, optimism is as unrealistic – and as prejudicial to a balanced assessment of our situation – as pessimism. But we continue to dwell on the positive as though "a positive outcome" will be the sign that we have life under control.
The current obsession with control looks to me like a symptom of a deep unease in our society. The yearning for control is a cry for help. The most useful response to that cry is not to say, "Here’s how to get your life under control" but to explain that the deepest sense of wellbeing springs not from mastery of our circumstances – let alone mastery of others – but from mastery of ourselves.
Some of us need guidance about how to manage our anger in the face of frustration, or to subdue our violence in the face of provocation, or to resolve our bitterness in the face of disappointment.
What we don’t need – and shouldn’t expect – is a magic wand that will remove frustration, provocation or disappointment from our lives.
We need to shift our focus from control to participation and engagement; from resistance to adaptation; from an unhealthy utopianism to a more realistic acceptance of life’s disorderliness, its irrationalities, its unpredictability, its disenchantments, as well as its joys, its gratifications and even its occasional small triumphs.
This is not to suggest for one moment that we should settle for lives of misery, frustration and disappointment, or that we shouldn’t encourage our children to fulfill their potential (as long as we’re realistic about what that potential is). But it is to suggest that adapting to our circumstances – accepting that things are the way they are – is a good starting point for working out how to respond to them.
I suspect the culture of control has contributed to the distress of many people by promoting a utopian view of relationships, achievements, outcomes, and even of possessions. Might it not be time to lower our expectations of how we should feel, what we can have, and what we can control?
This is an edited version of the Australian Psychological Society’s Annual Oration. Hugh Mackay is a fellow of the APS.