Homeless people have control issues. Hungry people have control issues. Low income people have control issues.
Before you cry, “Foul!” give me a chance to explain. I’m not criticizing the homeless, the hungry, or the poor. But I’ve spent a lot of time this past year serving a church surrounded by urban problems. It's helped me to recognize that being disadvantaged doesn’t make you immune to control issues.
Let’s face it, wouldn’t you have them? If all you owned in the world fit into a bag that you carried on a bike (if you were lucky), you might be somewhat controlling about that bag and that bike. If you managed to find enough food to feed an animal – a cat or dog – and that pet was the one constant source of love and affection in your life, you might be controlling about who interacted with it. Any threat, real or imagined, to your possessions or your pet would put you on edge to say the least.
So yes, the homeless, the hungry and the poor have control issues, and those control issues have to be taken into account when those of us who have homes and food and more sustainable employment set out to work and be in relationship with those who don’t.
I’m learning this each month at our Community Meal. I applaud my congregation for seeing this meal for exactly what it is – an opportunity to feed people. There’s no requirement for coming. There are no forms to be filled out or criteria to be met. We provide the food. You come and eat it. That’s all.
This past Sunday as the meal wound down and the majority of our guests had gone, Mark was still sitting at a table by himself, slowly working through his plate of food. I don’t need any special training in counseling or psychology to realize that Mark is depressed, perhaps bi-polar. The last few months he’s come in with a smile on his face. This month he could barely look up from his plate. I sat with him and talked a little, listened more, and realized how desperately hard it is for him to leave his bicycle outside while he comes in to eat. He doesn’t want it to be ripped off. Someone has offered to watch it for him, but is that person any more trustworthy than anyone else? I understood as I listened that he just wants a little bit of control in a life, and a world, where he has none. He has no real control over his environment. He sleeps outside most nights. He’s lucky, damn lucky, to have the transportation of a bike. And he wants to control what happens to it, because he sure as heck can’t control what happens to him. My offering to let him bring his bike inside while he ate didn’t really address the true problem. He has no control.
So yes, the homeless, the hungry and the poor have control issues. They’re human. Being human seems to be a source of control issues. I know I have my own. In fact sometimes I feel like I don’t just have control issues, I am a control issue.
We want so badly to be in control, to have some say in what happens to us, and in how our lives unfold. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to admit is that when it comes right down to it, I have no control whatsoever. I live with the illusion of having control. I work, I clean, I write, I read, I work out, all with the idea that somehow I control all of the elements of my life. But the truth is I can’t control what happens to me. I can’t control the future. I can’t fully control what happens to my children or my parents or my friends. I don’t want to fall into that clichéd phrase of “live each day as if it were your last,” yet there is truth to it. Uncertainty is real. Control really isn’t. Ya just don’t know.
But this isn’t meant to be an exercise in depression or futility. Instead I want to claim that our need for some modicum of control is one of the commonalities we all share. We want control, but we also know that control is an illusion. So how do we deal with this cognitive dissonance? For most of my life I’ve fought it. My mother will tell you that from a very early age I was and continue to be determined to do things myself. Am I stubborn? Yes. Independent? Sure. But I also want to be in control.
In 2008 I slipped on ice on the sidewalk outside of our house and broke my right wrist in three places. Recovery required surgery, pins, eight weeks in a cast and 12 weeks of occupational therapy once the cast and pins were gone. Never have I been less in control. But I was determined to assert some dominance over the situation. Two days after the accident I was in the house alone, unsteady because of all the pain medication I was on, yet I was still hobbling around the kitchen unloading the dishwasher one-handed trying to be in control. While I became very adept at doing a lot of things one-handed – writing on the board when I was teaching, folding clothes, making beds – I still needed help. A lot of help.
As much physical pain as I experienced during those months, the greater pain came from finally understanding that I couldn’t control everything. I couldn’t stop that fall. I couldn’t go back in time and prevent breaking my wrist. The most I could do was draw upon whatever patience I had and just get through each day.
What I really learned from that experience was that the opposite of control is not chaos as I’d previously believed. The opposite of control is trust. I know, deep down, that I can’t control what happens to me. But I can trust that somehow I’ll get through whatever fire I’m called to walk through. For me I trust in God. That may not be true for you, but I don’t think a lack of belief in an elevated being negates our need for trust. Trust in God, trust in ourselves or trust in the human spirit, wherever our trust is placed, the more we trust the less we need to control.
Perhaps the more we trust that we’ll be okay, the better able we are to see the needs of others and offer a hand of help. Maybe then we’ll all be okay.