Sunday, July 26, 2009

Illusions of Control

I like to be in control. I rarely am, mind you; but I like to feel like I've got things taken care of. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a control freak. It's not essential to me that I be in charge of every event, call all the shots when involved in a group activity, or even be the main planner of a family outing. In fact, after a week of running my business, paying bills, playing with the kids, dealing with unforeseen problems, and managing finances, I'm more than happy to have a seat, drink a beer, talk to a buddy, and let someone else be the boss.

When I speak of the need to control, I'm speaking more of the everyday things most dads are concerned about. As fathers, we tend to carry a great deal of pressure on our shoulders. Our minds are always occupied with something of importance. Moms, without question, are under the gun too. But their concerns are often different. Moms tend to worry about whether or not the kids are eating right, did they finish their homework, is the house clean enough to avoid investigation by the CDC, and will there actually be enough time to hit the drive-thru at Chic-Fil-A so as to provide life-sustaining sustenance for the children somewhere between swim lessons and gymnastics.

As a dad, my concerns tend to lie elsewhere. I'm not overly concerned about the kids' menu. I love my kids, of course, and I care about their health. But I also feel like God made frozen dinners for a reason. I'm not a label reader. If it's on the store shelf, I figure the FDA must have given it the go ahead. I suppose I shouldn't be too quick to trust my children's well-being to the same government that gave us toys with lead-based paint from China, mad-cow disease, and poisoned peanut butter, but heck, nobody's perfect.

I'm more occupied with questions like How are we going to get all the bills paid? Am I saving enough money? How can I invest more wisely? What if my business doesn't generate enough income this month? Are we making the right decisions regarding the kids' educations? Will my daughter grow up to be president or a pole dancer? These are the worries that can so easily dog a father. We shouldn't let them weigh on us, but they often do. We love our families, we want to feel like we are being providers. We want to know that we are taking care of our wife (even if she works and makes more money than us). We want to know that we are giving our kids everything they need. In short, we strive to provide security. We long to be a shield between our family and the pitfalls of a difficult and insecure world. Even if the walls are cracking and appear that they could crumble at any time, we don't want our little ones to have a clue. We just want them to be kids. We want them to run, play, pretend, and learn to argue over who got to the swing first without anybody kicking anyone else, hitting someone, or throwing a toy, a stick, or the neighbor's wiener dog (sorry, Paul).

The irony is that, if we allow our hearts and minds to be burdened by all the insecurities that the present and/or future hold, we fathers can find ourselves failing the very people we long to take care of. If we aren't careful, financial concerns, family worries, stresses at work, etc. can occupy our thoughts, steal our attention, and conquer our emotions. Our kids don't really care how much money we make or whether or not we got a promotion, they just want our full attention for a game of baseball in the backyard or a pillow fight before bed. Our children don't need to know how tight the bills are (unless you have a teenager with a cell phone), they just need dad to laugh with them, tickle them, pray with them, and read them a bedtime story.

Of all the challenges we face as fathers, one of the toughest is successfully disengaging our thoughts from the concerns we have so that the expressions on our faces, the tones of our voices, and the sincerity in our words communicate to our children that there is nothing more important to dad than them. Kids don't need designer clothes, the latest video game, or the biggest house. They just need to feel like when dad is with them that he's REALLY with them--not thinking about a big deal at work or mathematically trying to work out payment plans in his head as he mindlessly pushes his three-year-old on a swing.

Even when times are good, we dads can let worries intrude. If you have enough money this month, you worry about next month. If the kids are healthy today, you worry about how they'll be tomorrow. If your savings are growing and investments are doing well, you worry about what could happen to the stock market, real estate, the banks. If positive things are happening at work, you occasionally think about what would happen if you lost your job. The worries are always there for the taking. There's always a load to pick up and carry. And, as much as we don't want to, we often can't resist grabbing a few sacks and throwing them on our backs (backs that were meant for more important things, like piggy-back rides).

So what do we do? How do we continue to take seriously the role we have as fathers and caretakers of our families, without succumbing to the anxiety, stress, and ill-temperament that often accompany life's challenges? I think that we must recognize two very important things. First, we have to realize that, many times, CONTROL IS AN ILLUSION. Certainly, we control some things. We control our decisions. We control how we choose to respond to situations and circumstances. We choose our priorities, how we treat people, what behaviors we choose to engage in, whether or not to be men of integrity, and whether or not to put our faith in God or our own efforts and abilities. The problem is, we often make the mistake of spending much of our energy worrying about things we can't control while neglecting the things that we can. We worry about whether or not we have enough money, but even the best laid financial plans are ultimately at the mercy of the economy, an employer, the stock market, the price of real estate, and a government that changes tax laws and regulations at the whim of whatever political constituency is yielding the most clout during a given election year. We worry about our kids, but beyond our best efforts to love them, teach them, and meet their needs, their health and ultimate well-being will be out of our hands (just ask a parent who's had to watch their daughter cry over a broken heart, seen their son devastated by the news that he didn't make the team, or--God forbid--endured the heartache of watching their little boy or girl battle a life-threatening illness).

Most of the time, even when we feel like we are in control, it's a lie. Even when we feel like we are on solid ground financially, our family is healthy and happy, and the stars are aligned in our favor, we are still skating on a thin sheet of ice. Jobs are lost in a day. Stock markets crash. Real estate markets plummet. Businesses fail despite our best efforts. One visit to the doctor can yield news that totally changes your life. Trying to control everything is like trying to chase bubbles with my kids in the backyard. You run as fast as you can to get there, only to find that when you try to grab it, the bubble pops, leaving nothing in your hand. To keep "chasing bubbles" is to set yourself up for a life of stress and worry. You will never actually have the things you are fighting for. Even when you feel like you've got it, some circumstance will arise to blow the illusion out of the water and bring you back to the reality that certain things are simply beyond your realm of control.

Second, I think we have to recognize the boundary between being responsible and being in control. As I said, there are some things we can control. We can control our actions. We can control our responses to the things that happen in our life. BEING RESPONSIBLE is about recognizing what we can control and doing what we need to. I can't control what the economy will do. I can be responsible and live within my means, save what I can, make the best investments and decisions I can based on solid advice and reasoning. I can't control all the decisions my kids will make. I can be responsible and spend time with them, mentor them, love them unconditionally, and be the person I long for them to be. I can't control how my wife treats me, talks to me, sees me. I can control how I treat her, talk to her, and whether or not I will put her needs before my own. The big difference between striving to be responsible and grasping for control? Being responsible is about decisions. Being in control is about outcomes. We have to accept it, dads: We can't control outcomes; we only control our own decisions that we hope will result in certain outcomes.

The answer, then, is to figure out what we realistically can control, then do the responsible thing. Many times, things will go well. Sometimes, disasters and tragedies will arise despite our best responsible efforts. But that is where understanding the distinction between responsibility and control becomes so important. The man (or woman) who sees the boundary and respects it, can still find the peace that comes with knowing they did their part. They acted with integrity. They used the knowledge and means at their disposal and did what any reasonable, caring person would have done. Perhaps that's the key to finding the peace we long for as human beings. It's like the old prayer: "God, give me the courage to change the things I can, the faith to accept the things I can't, and the wisdom to know the difference." Let go of the illusion. Embrace the fact that there are things in your life that you simply can't control. Be responsible, but let go. Know that it is enough to do your part, and enjoy the freedom that comes with surrendering to life's "uncontrollables." Refuse to shoulder the burden of outcomes you can't predetermine. Drop that sack of worry and anxiety and free up your weary back. There's a little one right beside you who's been waiting patiently for that piggy-back ride.

Just a Heads Up! There will be no new Dadlosophy next week. Look for my next post on Monday, August 10, by 10am. -- Kindred

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post!

    Now, if I could just control my snacking... :)