Control

The Guideposts senior editor shares why God is always in control in times of crisis.


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I saw my first facemask on the subway this morning. Racing to catch my train, I reached the platform just as the doors closed. I stared into the car and there, staring back through a window, was a man with a surgical mask across his mouth and nose. He regarded me impassively. Then the train pulled away.

I’m a weird worrier. Anything having to do with my own abilities I worry about. Whatever I have to accomplish, find, avoid, get through, achieve, I assume I can’t do it. Anything else I don’t worry about much. I assume the world more or less takes care of itself. It’s my corner I have to worry about. It’s my corner where disaster lurks.

This Swine Flu, though, has expanded my sphere of worry. For the first time I find myself wondering whether something out there, this much-hyped, fretted-over disease, just might, might be headed my way. I think it’s because I have a child now. Frances, my two-year-old, goes to daycare most weekdays. I drop her off and—that’s it, she’s beyond my control. Anything—a virus?—could happen.

That feeling was heightened this week because Kate, my wife, is away on a much-needed three-day retreat. It’s been Frances and me, afloat on our little raft, going through our routines, waiting for Mom to return. I drop Frances off and she really is beyond control. Normally Kate is nearby to respond to any emergency. My office is way downtown. I might as well be across the country.

Control. That’s the issue, isn’t it? A New York Times local news blog had a post today, Has Swine Flu Changed Your Habits? (This being New York, comments ranged from “Please stay away from the subway, I love having a seat,” to “I’m wearing a mask. But I always wear a mask. It’s who I am.”). The presumption, of course, is that changing habits can change outcome. You, yes you, can stop Swine Flu.

Obviously washing hands, etc., all those sensible public health recommendations, are necessary. But they don’t, in the end, guarantee anything. In fact I think that’s the lesson of something like a Swine Flu emergency. Nothing is guaranteed. No matter how much we change our habits, no matter how many times we wash our hands, we are not in control.

That goes for the good as well as the bad. We can’t seal ourselves from every danger—and of course all of us die, that blunt, hard fact we scramble so assiduously to avoid. But neither are we the sole authors of our own joy. All of us live embedded in a web of relationships, events, pasts, futures over which we have little control and about which we often know very little. Control, even when it seems obviously available, is, I believe, very often no more than a potent illusion.

This week I spent a lot of time on the phone with a woman whose story about caring for a disabled son will appear in the August issue of GUIDEPOSTS. I don’t want to give anything away because I think the story is so good. But I can say it’s about surrendering control. Or rather I should say it’s about gaining wisdom. Because I think wisdom comes when you give up the illusion of control and acknowledge your dependence on God, on other people, on the mysterious operation of a universe that was not made for you alone.

Working on this story, I realized my own death grip on control. I am a man so committed to surrounding himself with order that I’ve turned wiping the kitchen counter into an act of neat-freak performance art. I can write and rewrite and rewrite the same paragraph for—well, I won’t tell you how long. It’s embarrassing.

I would say that in many ways my faith life centers on this problem of control. I relinquish it with utter, death-defying reluctance. Control over my actions. Over my surroundings. Over my notions about God. Over dangers threatening my family. Over the joy that longs to bless us.

I can’t say I’ll strike any victories over control this week. I’ll still wash my hands like a maniac. I’ll still wipe down that counter like my life depended on it. But I know the truth doesn’t lie there. It lies somewhere else. My prayer always is to find it.

Jim Hinch is a senior editor at GUIDEPOSTS. Reach him at [email protected].

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