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Illusions of Control
by Rabbi Abraham Twerski M.D.

One of the most thorny issues we confront in psychology is that of control. Many people have great difficulty in relinquishing control -- or better yet, in acknowledging that they are in fact not in control of many of the things they imagine they are in control of. The illusion of control can result in very serious adjustment problems in life simply because an illusion is a distortion of reality. Conducting one's life on a misperception of reality cannot but result in trouble.

The control issue has undoubtedly become a greater problem in recent years, because in the past there were not too many things that were under our control. As science and technology progressively give us more and more things that we can control, the illusion of control of everything becomes stronger.

In the days of the horse and buggy, a driver who wanted the horse to turn to the right would pull on the rein, which caused the horse discomfort as the pressure of the bit increased. To eliminate the discomfort, the horse turned to the right. The driver did not actually control the horse, but rather made it an offer that was difficult to refuse. It is possible that if the horse was starved and saw a pile of hay to the left, it might ignore the pull to the right and go to the left. This changed radically with the introduction of the automobile, because now the driver controls the direction of the car, and it cannot possibly disobey him.

When I was a child I had a little toy truck which I pushed along the floor. Recently I saw a 3-year-old child sitting with a control panel, gleefully controlling every movement of a little vehicle all the way across the room. It is certain that this child will grow up with a greater sense of control than his grandparents had.

A person about to leave the office may dial home and by pushing a few numbers activate the air-conditioning and turn on the washing machine and the oven, so that everything will be ready by the time he comes home. The epitome of remote control was when the spaceship, Explorer II, was beyond the solar system, yet responded to a command from the space center control room some two billion miles away. All these wonderful technological advances have had a side-effect of intensifying our illusion of control.

Many parents think they can control their children, and some husbands and wives think they can control their spouse, neither of which is healthy or true. People with a need to dominate seek control over others. One of the most striking negative consequences of the need to feel in control is that seen in the alcoholic, whose life may be disintegrating right before his eyes, yet he is adamant in insisting that he can control his drinking and that he has every facet of his life under perfect control.

A person who lives in poverty is not likely to have much of an illusion of control. The simple fact that he cannot have many of the things he would like to have proves to him that he does not have control. It is much different with a person who has been successful and is wealthy, who is likely to believe that his shrewd grasp of economics enabled him to amass wealth. Because he can gratify many of his desires, he is apt to believe that he is in control of his destiny.

What happens when a poor person strike it rich? There is always a risk that he may fall into the trap of thinking himself in control, but if he will remember the days when he was destitute and had very little control of things, he may avoid this pitfall. We find this in Moses' message to the Israelites as they were about to enter Canaan. Moses told them that when they prosper they may think that their good fortune is a result of their own efforts and that they are in control, and may consequently falter in their trust in God. He therefore reminded them that they had been helpless slaves, and that it was God Who delivered them from slavery. He told them to remember their 40 years of wandering in the desert when they were totally dependent on God, providing them with food and water in the barren wilderness. They should never forget, even when they live in luxury, that they are totally dependent on God (Deut. 8:11-18).

Indeed, we are taught that except for the freedom of choosing between moral right or wrong, every facet of our lives is under Divine control (Talmud - Berachos 33b).

However, if a person was well to do and was under the illusion of control, he may well retain that illusion even when things go badly for him. Just as the alcoholic is obstinate in relinquishing the illusion of control, so is the person who loses his wealth apt to continue to think he is in control. In fact, the very fact that he lost his wealth may be such a blow to his ego that he defensively intensifies his illusion.

I recall the case of a steel magnate who lost everything -- family, fortune, social status -- as a result of his drinking, and when he completed his in-patient treatment and arrangements were initiated for his going to a halfway house, he was obstinately opposed to this, in spite of the fact that he had no place to go. Even at the halfway house he continued to act the role of a powerful steel magnate!

The moment of truth came when, "One day I was standing in front of the halfway house with my hands in my pockets, when it suddenly occurred to me that I had no keys. I did not have anything to lock up." Then he went on to say, "After six years of sobriety, I can now show you the keys to my apartment, my office, and my car. Whenever I look at these keys I am reminded of when I had none, and that if I should ever again think that I can control alcohol, I will likely have no keys again."

Torah observance requires trust in God. A person who observed Torah while he was poor very likely realized the limitations of his own powers, and came to trust in God. If he becomes wealthy and remembers his earlier days, he will retain his trust in God. However, a person whose wealth resulted in his thinking himself as all-powerful may very likely not develop trust in God and may retain the illusion of omnipotence even when stark reality tells him otherwise.

Reprinted with permission from INNERNET MAGAZINE

Excerpted with permission from "VISIONS OF THE FATHERS" - Pirkei Avos with an insightful and inspiring commentary. Published by Shaar Press/Mesorah Publications.



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