The Devil Made Me Do It and Other Lies

 

ControlMy blog this week is a guest post by Dr. Flora Brown, who taught critical thinking for 20 years at Fullerton College in California. Dr. Brown muses on the illusion of control in our lives.  

 

The 1970s American comedian Flip Wilson became famous for his portrayal of sassy Geraldine, who excused her behavior by saying “The Devil made me do it.” This trademark quip became a national catch phrase.

It’s human nature to place blame outside ourselves for our behavior. But it is equally unproductive  to believe we have control in situations where we do not.

Each morning when I join my neighbor for a walk, I dutifully push the button and wait until the crosswalk man symbol appears, signaling that it’s safe for me to cross.  Since modern signal lights are computerized, I have no control over activating that light. It just makes me feel better believing I do.  

There’s a similar phenomenon in gambling. When modern casinos computerized slot machines, a decision was made to leave the handles for gamblers to pull for each play. Appropriately nicknamed “one-arm bandits”, these handles give gamblers something to do that reinforces the illusion they have control in a situation where they have none. 

Benefits of the Illusion of Control

Believing we have control in situations where we have little or none can be empowering.  

When I applied for a community college teaching position, it was to be the second full-time African American teacher in the history of a school approaching its 85th anniversary.  While I had strong educational preparation and experience, the decision would be made by a committee of strangers who evaluated my application along with 100 similarly qualified teachers.  My fate depended on many considerations other than just my personal qualifications.

If I had thought about how little control I had over the decision of that committee, I might never have applied.  But I didn’t think about that. I applied for the position and prepared well for the interview.  If I hadn’t applied, I definitely wouldn’t have gotten the job where I enjoyed a 20-year career. 

Sometimes, the illusion of control encourages us to take responsibility for our actions.  

Do We Ever have Control?

When, if ever do we have control?

We all laugh at Geraldine when she says “the Devil made me do it” because we immediately recognize it as a handy excuse for her excessive shopping.  But most of us have difficulty recognizing how we smudge the line between what we control and what we don’t.

In reality, our thoughts and actions are the only things that belong to us. We never have control over what another person does or says, or the circumstance we encounter. We just have control over what we think about and how we react to what we experience. Our attitude will not change the situation or outcome, but it will increase our chances of survival and triumph.

In his powerful book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, one of the world’s best-known Holocaust survivors, tells of the day he began to see beyond the reality of the daily horror he endured in the camps.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

After suffering in four concentration camps for three years, Frankl was released, but his wife, parents, and family had all died in the camps. Frankl went on to become a psychotherapist and developed a treatment called logotherapy, which theorizes that our primary motivation is our search for meaning in life. He believed that if we can find personal meaning in life, we can overcome dismal circumstances.

Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps did not make him vengeful, insensitive, or uncaring toward others’ sufferings. Instead, he realized that the guards could take everything from him, including his life, but they couldn’t control his mind or spirit. They couldn’t stop his sense of the search for meaning in life.

Frankl discovered it is our inner control that gives us power in our lives. It is discovering meaning—in a world that is out of control—that gives us peace.

The Shift in Control

It can be exhilarating to feel in control, to be able to direct our lives like a ringmaster. Some people fight to hold onto perceived control, and others cheat for it, lie for it, and even kill for it.  Even so, the reality is that no amount of victory, good fortune, physical fitness, prayer, personal achievement, fame, yoga, or meditation will spare us from eventually finding ourselves in situations over which we have no control. 

Since we know these situations will recur, how great it would be to greet them like a friend, no longer trying to control them, but learning from them and letting them pass. On that day, we’ll be equally at ease with taking responsibility for our behavior and relaxing when we are not in charge.  

 

Flora BrownFlora Morris Brown, Director of Content for www.ColorYourLifePublished.com, helps take the fear out of publishing, whether it’s your 1st or 7th book. Her 4-week on-demand e-course Rockin’ My Book, helps executives, coaches and entrepreneurs to increase credibility by writing a book. She is the author of Color Your Life Happy: Create the Success, Abundance, and Inner Joy You Deserve, among other books.

Flora Morris Brown, Ph.D.
www.coloryourlifepublished.com

 

Dr. Brown’s comment continue the discussion on the broad range of issues that confront my protagonist, Lindsey Chandler, in my novel, A Fitting Place.  If you would like to contribute to the discussion, please check the topics and guidelines here.

Comments

  1. Fascinating post Flora. It fits well with locus of control, a key concept much in vogue in my days as a psychology student in the 70’s. If I remember correctly, a perception of personal control (inner locus versus outer where you are at the mercy of The Powers That Be) correlated positively with mental health and happiness while an outer orientation co-existed with depression and hopelessness/helplessness.

    Obviously the key to this lock is perception. I have never heard scientific explanations for the power of positive expectations, but lots of us believe in them, at least to some degree. So I celebrate those buttons, handles and illusions! I’ll hang onto that handle, at least metaphorically, and I’ve been meaning to reread Frankl. Thanks for the nudge.

    Thank you Mary for attracting such fascinating guest posters to complement your own insightful thoughts.

    • Mary Gottschalk says:

      Sharon … I like the “inner vs. outer” frame for the subject of control. But I think expectations are a two-edged sword. They are wonderful if they motivate you to stretch, to reach for something beyond the everyday routine. But they also, as the Buddhist tradition notes, open the doors to lots of disappointments when things don’t live up to your expectations.

      Flora started a great conversation, didn’t she?

  2. Autonomy is important in my life, so I tend to avoid “control freaks.” I appreciate change and challenges and spontaneity. Will share your piece with one person in particular. So happy I read it because she brings out the rebellious teen in me and giving this to her is positive, and maybe, just maybe, she’ll embrace it.

    • Mary Gottschalk says:

      Saundra … how wonderful to know that this touched you … and prompted a meaningful conversation with a friend. Thanks so much for sharing that with us.

  3. Flora, Thank you for a well done post on one of my favorite subjects! “I’m not a controlling person, I’m responsible.” That was my line for many years, so I resonated with the cartoon too. It’s one of those lessons in life that’d be nice to have learned decades earlier, but alas … yet one more thing I don’t control.
    Thank you, Mary, for putting it all together. My best wishes on your forthcoming novel.

    • Mary Gottschalk says:

      Janet, thanks for stopping by and commenting on Flora’s lovely piece.

      I resonate with your learning the “illusion of control” lesson late in life. It came to me in early 40s, while on a sailboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a watershed day in my life. I couldn’t believe how much energy I had wasted for so many years in New Year City trying to “keep everything under control.”

  4. Sharon,
    You brought back fond memories of the 70s when I had everything figured out:)

    As for scientific explanations for the power of positive expectations, check out Dr. Bruce Lipton, stem cell
    researcher, who has been bridging science and thought.

    I’m glad that you’ll revisit Frankl.

    Thanks for your feedback.

    • Mary Gottschalk says:

      Flora. What I loved about your piece was the recognition of the limits of what you can control — your own thoughts and your own actions/reactions. In my own life, accepting the fact that I couldn’t control circumstances gave me so much more energy (physical as well as psychic) to devote to things that mattered.

      I so appreciate your contribution, which has stimulated a wonderful discussion.

  5. Hi Sandra,
    I’m happy that you have an immediate recipient for this piece.

    As for dealing with “control freaks,” I got lots of practice growing up with the mom I had. My kids say that I like power and control, and then passed it on to them. One thing is for sure, I like to write about it.

  6. Hi Janet,
    I like your line. After all, there are situations in which there responsible person is compelled to take control. I’m sure you’ll agree.
    Thanks for stopping by to comment.

  7. Thanks Flora! Excellent post on a topic so many of us face every day – some more than others. Well written!

  8. Hi Melissa,

    You’re so right that we face this issue more than we admit.
    Thanks for chiming in.

  9. Beautifully said. I recently wrote about blame too, but not as eloquently as you. Thank you for your wise words.

  10. Hi Flora,
    You certainly touched on a sensitive subject for most of us. We often deceive ourselves into thinking we have some control when in reality the only control we have is the control over our own responses and reactions. In the past I, too, have certainly engaged in the illusion of control under the guise of being responsible. Thankfully, I now realize that real power is taking responsibility for my reactions, attitudes and responses.
    Great article Flora. Thanks for bringing this timely and important message to our attention.

    • Mary Gottschalk says:

      Gladys.

      Thanks so much for stopping by. I think we all the better off for Flora’s wonderful insights on the limits of control.

  11. Linda,
    Blame is ever lurking, isn’t it. I enjoyed your take on it too.
    Thanks for visiting.

  12. Hi Gladys,
    We have to address this subject periodically, don’t we? Otherwise we’re in danger of drifting off into fantasy and getting stuck there. When we realize where our real power is located, we can balance ourselves.
    I appreciate your comment. Thanks.

  13. Hey, my Friend! I love reading/talking about control as much as I do doubt. I too believe that if we find something meaningful in our life we can overcome a lot, if not most every adversity and unexpected circumstance we encounter. I also believe that the better we know ourselves and what we truly want, the better we can manage our emotions when the uncontrollable rears its ugly head. Great food for thought to begin the day! Thanks, Flora!

    • Mary Gottschalk says:

      Peggy … I’ve been pondering your notion of overcoming adversity. It seems to me, following from Flora’s line of thought about Frankl, that it requires accepting the reality of the adversity, and then finding a way to keep oneself centered and focused even so. It is a skill I am still trying to master.

  14. Hi Peggy,
    I’m glad you enjoyed this food for thought. Knowing ourselves and managing our emotions are indeed the keys to meaningful and happy lives.

    Thanks for adding to the reminders.

  15. Flora and Mary,
    Thank you for the wonderful post. I find it equally challenging to be in the position where I feel as though I do have control and in the position where I feel life is out of control. Of course, to feel that i’s out of control means that I think I have control some of the time. I find I have to remind myself to let go. As for the meaning of life, I don’t think I know how to search for it. I’m off to read Frankl again.

    • Mary Gottschalk says:

      Wendy … how lovely to see you here … and as so many fellow U of C alums do, posing both sides of a dilemma. I too have been inspired by Flora’s post to re-read Frankl, so we should touch base then!

  16. Hi Wendy,
    It’s laughable to think we have lots of control, only to discover we have very little.
    It takes setting the intention to find meaning that gets us going in the right direction.
    Perhaps it was not easy for Frankl at first, but he took note of his predicament, observed his
    fellow prisoners, and made a life-changing decision. We all can benefit from reading Frankl for
    the first time or again.

    Thanks for giving us more to think about on this topic.

  17. Flora,
    I have a question…Posting from my mobile…I’ve been standing on this street corner for a couple of weeks now, conversing with the little red “Don’t Walk” fellow to pass the time. The little green “Walk” guy has not made an appearance. Are you SURE I don’t need to push the button??
    Shaun

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