The Illusion of Control.

My childhood home in Waukegan, Illinois.

Today I’m in a reflective mood.  I’m sitting here this morning thinking back on years gone by.  Loved ones who are now gone.  Friendships that are broken due to not keeping in touch over the years.

The start of the new school year always does this to me.  Around early August I start having the School Nightmares, as I call them.  Despite these being nightmares, I always did love school.  In fact, I loved school so much I stayed in college until I went as high as I could go (PhD).  Then I seriously considered majoring in something else & getting another doctorate!  However, by then I was married.  Had I still been single I truly believe that’s exactly what I would have done.  I love the process of learning new things.  It makes life so interesting.

My School Nightmare # 1 starts off in middle school (for many, that’s enough to classify it as a nightmare right there!).  Back home we called it Junior High and these were the grades 7 – 8th.  In the dream it’s the first day of school.  I go in & get my schedule & locker combination.  I’m so excited.  I put my books in my locker and head off to my first class, which in the nightmare is always Social Studies (History).  That was always my favorite class, next to Art.

I leave class and must return to my locker for something important I need for the second class, something we had to write up over the summer and I have mine all nicely prepared.  I go to my locker and with shock I realize I somehow lost the slip of paper with my lock’s combination on it.  I frantically search all my pockets, backpack, and notebooks.  No slip of paper to be seen and I can only remember the first number of my combination.

Now, I know all I need to do is go to the main office and tell them I need another copy of my combination.  It’s a very simple solution. However, when I head to the office there’s been a fire.  All the combination papers have been destroyed!  The information is on the computers, BUT, the system is down!  Then the lady who gave me the combination in the first place telling me it was her date of birth, well, she went outside & somehow was hit by a car and died in front of the school!  So there’s just NO WAY for me to get my locker combination.  Meanwhile, my paper is in my locker, I must then go to the class without my paper.  I am stressed beyond believe, then I suddenly (and thankfully) wake up!  I’m always in a cold sweat.

School Nightmare # 2 is another stress dream.  In this dream it starts the same as the other, exactly the same.  The only difference is after my first period class I’ve lost my schedule.  So I don’t know where I need to go next, only that it’s an English class.  I know where the English Hall is, of course, but not knowing which class or even the name of the teacher, just knowing it’s an English class doesn’t help me.

Waukegan East High School, my alma mater. Class of 1981.

Again, I realize all I need do is go to the office and have  them print out another schedule for me.  Easy, right?  Well, yes, it SHOULD be easy, but it never is.  I go to the office and the line to be waited on is out the door and down the hall!  So I know I’ll be late and I may even miss my second period class altogether.  I panic.  Or, I get in the office, but no one is there to help me and they never show up.  As the clock on the wall ticks I realize I am missing my second period class on the first day of school.  Never a good thing!  Or, a nice lady wants to help me, but the printer isn’t working.  She brings up my schedule on the computer and turns the monitor so I can see it.  I start writing it down & my pencils all break, they have no sharpener in the office, and my pens are all out of ink!  I am standing there struggling to memorize at least the next three classes on my schedule then I wake up.  Again, in a cold sweat.

I’ve had these nightmares several times every August since 1975.  I was in school until 1995 when I received my doctorate.  The following August came and wow, no nightmares!  I figured I was cured!

Fast forward to 2003.  My daughter’s first year of school, just starting kindergarten.  It’s early August and suddenly the two nightmares in all their variations are back!  I find this humorous because I’m no longer the one attending school.  My daughter is now the student, yet every year since 2003, come August, those nightmares are back.  I had one just last night.

So I sit here and ponder the question, WHY?  Why am I plagued by this nightmare.   I look back at what I have written above and it suddenly hits me.  Every nightmare scenario has the same theme:  a loss of control.  I no longer control my locker because I’ve lost the combination.  I’m no longer in control of my school day because I’ve lost the schedule.

A loss of control is a scary thing, especially for me as I am a bit of a control freak.  I believe in doing things correctly and getting them right the first time so when others can’t fit that mold I take over and believe in the old saying ,”if you want something done right you need to do it yourself.”  That’s me in a nutshell.  It also seems that my entire life I’ve been surrounded by confused people.  They can’t make decisions, can’t figure out if they should follow method A, B or C on how to do something, and they always turn to me for guidance. I give them guidance.  Then I’m called “bossy” to my face when all I was doing was offering the advice they had ASKED me to offer!  Perplexing, I know.  I pull back, allow them to fumble around, then I’m accused of allowing them to stumble when I so easily could have fixed it all for them if I had just stepped in.  Yet, the next time I do help and offer the advice or tell them which method will work the best – despite the great results I’m called “bossy.”

I now think I’m having those nightmares every school year because as a child and up into my adult years as a college graduate student, the start of the school year was always exciting to me, but also a bit scary.  I never had total control over my education.  Who does?  Those dreams all are mirroring a fear of a loss of control and exemplify my need to be in control, but when you’re a student the material you will cover that year is up to your teachers and your school’s requirements for the curriculum.  I well recall the summer before my senior year in high school.  We were told the year before that for senior Honors English we would read either Shakespeare’s Hamlet, MacBeth, or a large collection of his sonnets.  Except for the romantic poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, I did not like poetry. In fact, I really couldn’t stand it at all (now as an adult I enjoy it).  So I prayed all summer long for it to be either Hamlet or MacBeth and really prayed for Hamlet since I had seen 3 versions of it in movie form so was very familiar with the storyline.

That summer the nightmares began in July and their frequency increased from twice a week to every single night.  I was not sleeping well.  Looking back after writing this post I now see why.  It was a total lack of control in the situation. I could no more sway my senior Honors English teacher Mr. McNamee to choose Hamlet as I could convince the president of the United States to come clean our house.  It was impossible and that drove me bonkers so the nightmares became really awful that summer.  However, I breathed a HUGE sigh of relief when on the first day of class Mr. McNamee announced we would be reading Hamlet later that year.  Did all those prayers give me a modicum of control in the situation?  I’ll never know for sure, but I like to think so.  I’m a firm believer in the power of prayer.

Control over our lives is important to us. It’s important to us to feel that WE are in charge and that we’re not just bits of dust blowing around in the wind.  We are important and we make decisions that mold the future of our lives.

Yet, there are times in our lives when control isn’t a good thing, when control can be too restrictive and can prevent us from seeing or taking advantage of other opportunities as they present themselves.  Case in point – my dissertation.

When I began writing it, once my topic was approved by the five professors that served on my dissertation committee, for the FIRST TIME EVER regarding school I felt that I WAS IN TOTAL & COMPLETE CONTROL.  I could write what I wanted as long as I stuck to topic and could back up what I said with evidence.  It was a very freeing experience, let me tell you!

The ball court at the Classic Maya site of Copan.
The ball court at the Classic Maya site of Copan.

The funny thing is, when I sat down to write my outline I got stuck.  I’m a very good writer.  Writing has always come easy to me and I scored in the upper 5 percentile in the verbal on my college entrance exams.  I can easily write pages and pages in one sitting and still have more to say, but the day I sat down in the apartment I shared with my new husband to start writing the outline to what would be the very last thing I ever wrote for a professor – I got stuck!

For the FIRST time I was in TOTAL CONTROL, but I had writer’s block!!!

Amazing, is it not?  Give me total control and I can’t come up with a single line.  Yet, stuff all sorts of requirements and restrictions down my throat and I can write for pages without leaving my chair once!

I struggled for 4 weeks over that outline. None of it beyond “I.  Introduction” made any sense to me.  I was bumping up against my deadline for turning in the outline when one day out of sheer frustration I yelled at God and said, “God!  Why aren’t you helping me?  Why have you always made writing so easy for me, but the ONE time I can write what I want You are allowing me to be totally stuck!  I have a deadline to meet!”

I listened.  God was silent, or so I thought.

A day or two later I was watching some guy on our local PBS station.  I don’t remember who it was, but he grabbed my attention during channel surfing when he mentioned the word “control.” He also mentioned “choices” and he spoke about people who are always in great control of the situation when their choices are limited, but if you open them up to having more choices they will often become stuck and not know which direction to choose.  It was crystal clear he was talking about my dissertation and I.  As he went on talking about control he insisted control is an illusion.  None of us are ever really in control at all, but things aren’t totally random, either.  He said the trick to control is to lose control, to freely give it up and allow the universe to make decisions for you because the universe always works for your highest good.  He then took the audience through a little prayer that went something like this:

“God/dess/Universe, I humbly ask for your help in this matter. I know all control ultimately lies in your capable hands.  I realize in comparison to you I have no control over my life.  I freely relinquish the control I believe I have as I turn all control over to you. I trust in your sound decisions for me and my life and I know everything will work out to my highest good.  You are in control of my life.”

I figured, oh, what the heck. It couldn’t hurt, right?  Plus, it was a nice prayer.  So I put my emotions and energy into it and said the prayer.  I said it several times.  Later that day it was time to write once more. I sat down and wrote:

“I.  Introduction.

  1. Brief definition of Classic Maya civilization
  2. Brief overview of the importance of the ballgame
  3. Connection of ball court to cosmic creation
  4. Connection of ball court to symbolic architecture
  5. Ball court as an architectural analog to the Mountain of Creation”

And there I had it in less than a minute!  My introductory chapter was fully outlined and I knew what each section would contain.  So I continued on and in about ten minutes I had my entire dissertation, all eight chapters and the conclusion outlined.

I not only made my deadline, but my professors were very impressed.

This is what happens when you realize you’re not in total control 24/7.  If any of us were we’d be God.  We’re not God, therefore we are not in total control.

When you set your ego aside and tell God/dess/Universe that you turn all control over, you’re not giving up, you’re not giving in.  You are acknowledging the power of something greater than yourself that can step in and make life easier for you.  The Ego spends a lot of time causing us to bash our head against a brick wall.  We think we have the way, the ONLY way, when there are really many approaches to the same problem.  The Universe chooses the approach that has the least resistance, thus making it easier for us to accomplish our goals.

I wrote my dissertation in 8 months and had a completed manuscript.   I was friends with other grad students who had been working on their dissertation for YEARS (one was entering his eighth year of writing and ended up graduating with me).  Yet, there I was with a completed manuscript by April 15th, the deadline, so I was able to give my oral defense to my 5-member dissertation committee in early May for a possible passing grade and graduation at the end of May.

An oral defense lasts three hours, or so I’ve been told.  Mine lasted a total of 28 minutes.  I passed.  When it was over my professors were calling me, “Doctor Gutierrez” (my legal birth name), no longer were they referring to me with my first name.  Now it was with a title, a hard-earned title, and a major mark of respect from some of the leading scholars in my chosen field of study.

This is what happens when you give up the illusion of control.  Everything becomes easy and in fact – what could have been the most stressful situation of my entire life – the writing of my doctoral thesis – was very enjoyable.  I enjoyed the entire process from start to finish.  I was actually sad to see it come to an end.

If there is something in life over which you have been struggling, something that just isn’t working out no matter what approach you try, please say the prayer included in this post.  Say it with emotion.  Pour all your frustration into.  Do as I did and throw your hands up into the air and exclaim, “God, I know You are in control, not I, so please make all this work out!”

God listens.  He really does.

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