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.

Keeping Secrets

 

cartoon_ear_whisper-783886Keeping secrets can do enormous damage in a marriage or, for that matter, any personal relationship.  The cost of keeping secrets is one of the key themes I explore in my novel, A Fitting Place.

It is a subject I know well. 

Over the years of my marriage, there were a thousand times I chose not to share my ideas with my husband. Sometimes it was as trivial as my desire to stop for lunch when I thought he wanted to keep driving.  Sometimes it was more substantive … the kind of house I wanted to live in, or the kinds of food I preferred to eat. Sometimes it was an awkward subject … what I wanted from him by way of emotional support or sexual gratification.

As with more conventional secrets (e.g., an adulterous affair, an addiction), my unwillingness to reveal myself was driven by a fear of what he would think.  Beneath that fear was a belief, instilled by a hypercritical mother, that how I felt and what I wanted was silly or childish or immature.

As too often happens, I carried this relationship with my mother into my marriage, projecting her scornful attitude onto my husband. It was not long before I started to read every difference of opinion as criticism, to live in fear that he “wouldn’t love me” if he knew that … [you can fill in the blanks].

To avoid the criticism and scorn I imagined he felt, I let him make most of “our” decisions and articulate most of “our” opinions.  Day by day, I drifted farther away from the thoughtful, interesting and often opinionated woman he’d once wanted to marry. By the time we left for the journey recounted in Sailing Down the Moonbeam, I had become a cipher, an empty shell in the role of a wife.

And, of course, I blamed him for being controlling.

Our divorce, when it came, was all the more painful because I was in a foreign country where I knew no one and I had no support systems.  But it also meant that, for the first time in my life, I had no one to tell me what I should think or what I should want or what I should do … no one to tell me that I was silly or stupid or childish.  

At age 45, I finally stopped keeping secrets. I finally took control of and responsibility for my own life. The world has been a much better place ever since.

Are you a keeper of secrets? Have you been a keeper of secrets in the past? How did affect your relationships?

 

This blog continues the discussion on themes in my novel.  I welcome comments and guest blogs from my readers based on their own experiences.  Let me know if you’d like to do a guest blog on one or more of the issues relevant to A Fitting Place

 

 

A Fitting Place – Another Comfort Zone

 

In my memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam, leaving my comfort zone meant intentional travel in a small sailboat to unfamiliar locations around the world.  By contrast, the protagonist in my novel, A Fitting Place, is hurled out of her comfort zone when virtually everything she takes for granted in her familiar New York City environment is upended.

The premise of my novel, as with my memoir, is that stepping outside your comfort zone offers myriad opportunities for emotional, intellectual and professional growth.  Over the course of the next several months, as I complete the final draft, my blog will explore a number of the themes that recur throughout the novel.

Among them, not necessarily in order of importance or scheduling, are:

  •  the illusion of control,
  •  betrayal vs. loyalty,
  •  honesty vs. integrity,
  •  success and failure
  •  friendship,
  •  parenting,
  •  the cost of keeping secrets,
  •  mindfulness,
  •  intimacy,
  • communication,
  • gender identity and sexual fluidity,
  •  myth as a cultural narrative,

My intent is to open up a thoughtful discussion in some challenging arenas that, from time to time, generate strong opinions.  I am less interested in defending a particular point of view than in providing a forum where my readers can and will comment based on their own experiences.

As part of this strategy, I will be inviting individuals with personal experience and/or professional expertise in these areas to do guest blogs. If you would be interested in providing a guest piece on one or more of these topics, let me know and I will send you my guidelines.

 

Shaping Your Journey

 

scan0002_2A reader recently asked whether the process of writing Sailing Down the Moonbeam had a role in “shaping” my understanding of a journey that took me from one career to another via three years on a small sailboat.  My first response was “not really,” but within moments, I knew the answer was “yes.”

It related to our sojourn in Panama.  When I first outlined the story, I viewed Panama, along with a host of lovely island stops across the Pacific Ocean, as places where we’d had interesting adventures, but not experiences that specifically contributed to the life lesson—learning to love living out of control—that inspired Moonbeam.

I couldn’t omit Panama entirely, if only because we spent seven months there. But I anticipated half a dozen pages, focused on the challenges of getting through the Canal. 

In fact, Panama takes up 41 of the final 209 pages. It was only as I started writing that I understood the role that Panama had played in my journey:

**       It was in Panama that I first understood how much of “me” had disappeared over fifteen years of marriage.  

As many women do, I had allowed my husband–an extrovert—to make so many decisions about ordinary everyday activities.  Not surprisingly, I’d almost lost sight of my own ability to organize life and make friends without his help. 

But much of our early time in Panama revolved around his surgeries (first a hernia, then a melanoma).  I had no choice but to take the initiative. In Panama, I not only re-discovered who I had once been, but also who I could become.

**      It was in Panama that I first began to think about the benefits of “stepping outside your comfort zone.”

Through an incredible bit of serendipity, my husband and I both got part-time jobs that utilized our professional skills. As a result, we transitioned from travelers to residents and had to adapt to a way of life that challenged many of cultural mores and norms we’d taken for granted for four decades. It was often humbling to realize that “my way” isn’t always the best way.

Writing Moonbeam did not change my “memory” of Panama, but it certainly shaped my understanding of the experience, much like journaling can provide a new perspective on a familiar situation.  It helped me to understand that Panama set the stage. Without Panama, I doubt I would have been receptive to the lesson that was reinforced each day as we crossed the Pacific Ocean—that a living a life that was out-of-control might be a very good thing indeed.

How has writing shaped your memory?