Why was it, I wondered, that people with such good intentions can be so obnoxious – even pushing people away who would normally have been on their side? As I thought and (I admit) stewed on this, I began to wonder how many of these well-meaning people were operating out of their frustration – or their fear – that they couldn't force the world to be a fair place. Of course, it is important that we all try to make the world fairer. There are all sorts of injustices that we can do something about, and we should. But we'll never succeed in making it perfectly fair. We could force everyone in the country to learn ASL and teach everyone to adhere to a certain standard of inclusion and “niceness,” but it's still not fair that a Deaf person can't hear the magic that is Tchaikovsky, and there's nothing I or anyone else can do to make it fair. Was the obnoxiousness a sign that deep down they were running from the terrifying prospect that ultimately, they live in a universe they can't control?
Fear of not being in control is deeply embedded in humanity. It's the impulse behind both survivor's guilt and the shame many sexual assault survivors feel: because even the weight of guilt and shame is less scary than accepting that I am powerless to prevent such things happening. If it's my fault, at least it's within my control. It's why our initial instinct is to fear the things we don't understand: because understanding something is the key to knowing what to do about it – the key to knowing how to stay in control in the situation. It's the reason masks freak so many of us out: because we get an immeasurable amount of information from a person's face, and information is power, and masking your face means that you're still getting information from me while I'm getting none from you. (This, by the way, should give us some empathy for our autistic neighbors who have a hard time reading facial expressions; the world is a very scary place when everyone is essentially wearing a mask.)
As I thought about this, I realized how many of the problems within and between people stemmed ultimately from this need for control. The very definition of domestic violence is “a pattern of using physical, verbal, emotional and/or spiritual violence to control someone in a close relationship,” and it usually develops because the abuser was made to feel helpless as a child. Another researcher on domestic violence makes the important and surprising distinction, “The intent is not to hurt. The intent is 'to get my way'.” Most of the things that give religion a bad name, such as killing in the name of a deity or trying to coerce people into converting, (often in contrast to the teachings of the religion itself), likewise come not from religious devotion so much as a desire to control others. The desire for control and horror of helplessness is seen in things as large-scale and terrible as genocide and as mundane and petty as nagging. Even our impatience in traffic is, deep down, a frustration that we have no ultimate control over our commute to work. And let's not even discuss how frequently and vehemently I cuss at technology – at least you can reason with a human! (Sometimes.)
The Bible refers to these problems within and between people (and, ultimately, between people and God) as “sin.” Now, I'm not going to spend a terribly long time trying to define sin, because concise definitions often sound very different from each other without actually being contradictory, which can get confusing. Just as “fruit” can be summarized as “the seed-bearing part of a plant,” or “a minimally-processed food essential to good health,” or “y'know – like an apple, banana, orange, or pear,” – all of which are accurate and none of which sound remotely similar – important concepts like “love,” “sin,” and “kindness” can be defined in a myriad of ways, even when there isn't disagreement about what they are. For the purposes of this discussion, sin is an inward or outward rejection of the goodness God intended, and I apologize if that's different from the summary you've heard before.
In any case, as I realized how just about every sin could be traced back to some form of a desire for control, I was struck by the idea that it even original sin could be understood in this way. In Judeo-Christian teaching, “original sin” goes back to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-3, in which the original humans were given what seem like laughably simple instructions – “you can eat from any of the zillions of trees here except that one” – and botched it up anyway. Of course, the issue wasn't eating fruit (however you may define fruit), the issue was that the tree in question was “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” and instead of remaining innocent, they chose to know evil. (They already knew good, because the text says everything God had made was good). Jews and Christians believe this was the beginning of the human capacity and tendency to choose evil, and of every subsequent loss of innocence, loss of trust, and loss of goodness – all of the problems within and between us – that came with it.
Of course, if you look closely at the story, the temptation wasn't “to usher in evil.” Who would choose that? No, just as the intent behind abuse isn't really “to cause harm,” the temptation here was more subtle than that. When the serpent deceived Eve, he didn't say, “go ahead, you'll open the door to immense suffering and it'll be great,” he said “you'll be like God.” What a terrible, strong, familiar temptation. “You'll be like God.” “You'll be the one in control.”
Theologians have tried for years to define what exactly that original sin was. Some have referred to it as disobedience or rebellion – Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and every subsequent sin has been some form of rebelling against God's instructions about what is good and what is evil. Augustine defined it as concupiscence, also known as lust or covetousness: the original sin, and every subsequent sin, came out of skewed desires, in which we passionately desire or value some things too highly and disvalue God. Others have referred to it as pride, an attitude that we know best and that no one, not even God, should interfere with that. It can be understood as unbelief – an attitude that God isn't actually trustworthy – or as ingratitude – that what God has given us isn't good enough and what He wants for us isn't as good as what we want for ourselves. And now I've put forth yet another one (and I'm sure I'm not the first) – Adam and Eve wanted to be in control like God, and every subsequent sin has been some form of trying to force the universe into being under our control.
Here is where that illustration about definitions comes into play, because none of these concepts are mutually exclusive, even though each one tries to distill all sin down to a single root. All of these concepts – rebellion, pride, misplaced and inordinate desire, distrust, an unhealthy desire for control – are all aspects of that same temptation: “you will be like God.” The organization Cru summarizes it well in saying that sin is basically an attempt to displace God – that in our hearts, we all try to nudge the King of the Universe off His throne and sit there ourselves. It's almost like a spiritual Oedipus complex, except unlike little boys who want to replace their fathers, none of us is ever going to “grow up” into being God.
I'll be honest: control is an issue for me. I'm guessing it's an issue for a lot of us. If control actually is an aspect of original sin, (and thus a root of all sin to some degree), I'd even go so far as to say that control is an issue for all of us.
There is way more to discuss on this topic, but in the interest of time, I'll save it for the next installment. In the meantime, I'm going to be asking God to continue helping me see and let go of the ways in which I'm a control freak.