“Lali,” my therapist says, crossing his long legs, “you are not God.” He puts aside his notepad, which he will not need because we’ve been over this before. My illusion that I am in control, or that I should be in control, of my life has been a frequent topic in our recent sessions. “I know I’m not God,” I counter lamely, “but…” And without sighing or allowing himself the slightest eye roll—the man is a saint—he steers us, for the umpteenth time, into a review of my exaggerated, misery-inducing need for control.
No matter how often we go over it, I still can’t absorb the notion that the need to take charge is an obstacle to happiness at best and to sanity at worst. And no wonder. My entire life has been an unrelenting effort to anticipate, strategize, and control what happens to me and to those I love. Think ahead, take little for granted, sleep with one eye open, like the hare—these have been my mottoes, with their comforting implication that if I live by them everything will be all right.
I always assumed that this was how everybody operated, except for those derelict souls who, thanks to their lack of discipline, poor upbringing, or happy-go-lucky nature, ended up sprawled in gutters and back alleys. To my mind, there were only two choices: unceasing vigilance and iron control on the one hand, or Dickensian squalor on the other. Shrugging and going with the flow were never in my repertory of gestures. I was more the clenched jaw, swim upstream type.
Now I’m having to learn, not a moment too soon, that there exists somewhere a happy medium, an elusive point of balance between these extremes. The trouble is that, during all my adult life, the effort to maintain control seemed to work just fine. I got lots of positive reinforcement from my struggles for control. The children grew and prospered, my husband and I kept our jobs and our marriage and our house. Nobody fell into the gutter or went to jail or even got a traffic ticket.
If I thought the challenges of combining family and career required constant vigilance, they were as nothing compared to the challenges posed by the later stages of life. Just as our energies begin to flag and our faculties to dim, the demands on them multiply. Sure, we are now retired, but our former jobs have been replaced with a brand new profession, one for which no school prepared us: the endless task of keeping ourselves and our partners in reasonable repair.
In the career of survival, there are no weekend breaks, no vacations. I am on duty 24/7, making and keeping medical appointments, filling out forms, fetching prescriptions, exercising, meditating, eating healthy foods, and learning new skills to keep my brain from atrophying. These duties not only consume my days, but require constant alertness to the best and latest practices, while guarding against misinformation with its potentially fatal effects. And still, despite my best efforts, things fall through the cracks.
Beneath this compulsion, of course, lies the fear of death—the ultimate loss of control, the final unmasking of my god-like persona. For the sake of my sanity and comfort during these final years, I need to find a way to abandon the desire for total control while avoiding dereliction.
But where is this happy medium to be found? Could somebody please direct me to the hidden path that wends between the fortifications of absolute control and the, you know, gutter? In what exact situations am I supposed to “let go, and let God”? Is it o.k. to skip a dental cleaning, a yoga class, a mammogram? What if I don’t manage to eat five portions of vegetables and fruits every day? What if I neglect to have a lawyer review my will every five years, as recommended?
The sad truth is, I suspect, that nobody can show me that path because it doesn’t exist. In the words of Antonio Machado, “wayfarer, there is no path / paths are made by walking.” Looking for a ready-made path is nothing more than trying to control the way to let go of control.