Yesterday, I was in the church nursery, reading to a pair of almost-two-year-old girls. I was on the floor, back against a wall, one child on my thigh, the other by my side. I read a page and turned the page. Or tried to, at least. One little girl took the page I had just turned, turned it to the former page and promptly turned it to the next one: the same thing I had done five seconds earlier. Though she remained silent, it sent a clear message: I’ll do it myself!
It reminded me of my late grandmother. One afternoon, many years ago, she and a few other family members sat at their dining room table, chatting. “Oh, I need more iced tea,” she said.
My grandfather tried to take it from her. “I’ll get it.”
My grandma clutched the empty glass, stood up, and declared, “I’m seventy-four years old, and I can get it myself!”
Mom and my aunt applauded. My grandfather looked bewildered. I laughed. My grandmother trotted to the kitchen and returned, triumphantly bearing the now-filled iced tea glass, like newly-crowned champions holding up their new trophy after the winning game.
My grandfather, bless him, is a bit of a control freak. Okay, a huge control freak. (Or he was until his dementia reduced him to dependency on the nursing home staff.) All my life, I’ve seen him try to control situations and my grandmother.
“Here, Evelyn, let me get that.” “No, Evelyn, you can’t do that. I’ll do it.” “I’ll do this (fill in the blank with a thing that you can do perfectly well yourself) for you (whether or not you want me to).”
Open the car door for you. Correct your mistakes. Refill the iced tea glass.
Nice things or not-so-nice things: it didn’t really matter. What mattered was the dependency. Who was in charge, and who wasn’t.
So for my grandmother to stand on her two aged feet and assert independence was a thing to be applauded.
We all recognize controlling people. They exist everywhere. Churches. Schools. Workplaces. Literature is filled with manipulative, reduce-you-to-dependency people:
Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. He persuades his crew to join his quest for revenge on the whale that destroyed his leg. The lone voice of dissent, his first mate, is silenced. His pleas to Ahab aren’t as powerful as the captain’s obsessive, blood-thirsty rhetoric.
Dorothea’s husband in Middlemarch. He tries to bind her to a foolish promise, one that would give her wealth and security, but deny her the right to marry the man she loves.
Lady Macbeth, persuading her husband to kill Duncan. The competing magicians in The Night Circus, who orchestrate the training, events, and interactions of their proteges’ lives, until the proteges inconveniently fall in love with each other. The chancery court in Bleak House, whose generations-long delay of action in Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce leads to disaster for the unfortunate family.
Alec and Angel Clare in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. Rebecca (and her overly loyal servant, Mrs. Danvers) in Rebecca. The murderers in whodunits, controlling other people in the most extreme way possible: ending the victims’ lives.
All those Greek gods of the myths. They loved to play god with mortals’ lives. Oh, wait, they were gods in those stories. (They remind me of overgrown teenagers with too few morals and too much power.)
The controllers use whatever they have. Bodies. Words. Wealth. All becomes weapons. The controller distorts them until their original purposes are lost. So few of us think of bodies or wealth as good things, and a good many of us are leery of the power of words. We’ve heard them wound as often as we’ve heard them encourage.
Sometimes I wonder if we think of God as a control freak.
When my grandmother asserted her independence against a controlling man, it was a healthy thing.
When we assert our independence against God, it’s an entirely different matter.
If he’s in charge, we think, why do bad things happen?
If he’s in charge, he must be bad to let bad things happen.
If he’s in charge, isn’t that just another way of saying he’s a control freak? And I don’t trust control freaks, I don’t trust anyone who tells me what to do, I don’t trust him.
So we snatch back the empty iced tea glass of our lives, saying defiantly, “I’ll do it myself!” Then we wonder why we can’t find the tea pitcher that will fill our lives with meaning and purpose.
We search for meaning in words: advertising, propaganda, philosophies, speeches designed to slander or divide or persuade others to violence, books filled with nonsensical advice or stories emptied of meaning.
(Yet Christ is the Word, the One who was God and was with God and was from the beginning.)
We search for meaning in bodily pleasures: sex, thrills, food, physical achievements for the sake of fame or fortune.
We conclude that bodies are bad: hurting our bodies, abusing other bodies, forcing others to unnecessarily cover their flesh, denying food to ourselves or others, killing.
(Yet that Word became flesh, humbling himself to become fully human while fully God.)
We search for meaning in wealth: make money to make more money, consume for ourselves and not care for others, climb a social ladder that shouldn’t exist.
(Yet that God-in-human body rejected the wealth and status that were rightfully his, coming to earth as a commoner, humble and poor, and taught us the path to real wealth—eternal riches—was through him.)
All the while, that tea glass remains empty. And the pitcher sits silently on the counter, waiting for us to realize that our glass is still empty. Waiting for us to be willing to allow it to fill us to overflowing.
“I’ll do it myself!”
Who is the control freak?
Those people around us?
Those we hate?
Those we love to hate?
Those characters in books or movies?