Drowning In Control

After being assigned to the water rescue tactical house, the department required us new guys to attend a week-long water rescue course in Golden, CO. It was a lot of fun and the experience bonded us even more. One morning during that training we had to float downstream on our backs as part of learning how to navigate the river. We were taught to lie on our backs, feet first, and relax. At no time, were we to attempt standing up, as a foot could get trapped under a rock causing us to be pushed forward by the strong current and drowned. At one point in my cruise down the river, the current pushed me under water, which had happened frequently down that short course. This time, however, the current didn't allow me to surface. As the seconds ticked off an hour at a time, I mastered my fear and panic and just waited to feel the air on my face. The seconds ticked on and I was still under water. Nothing was happening, except I was drowning. Despite what the instructors had said, I started to put my feet down, so I could stand up and breathe, but as I did, my bottom dropped lower than my back and my tailbone struck a rock. Immediately, I resumed the flat-backed position I was supposed to have and fought to move just my face above the surface of the water, but with no success. Tired, terrified, and confounded, I laid back and thought that I had no other choice than to inhale the water and get my drowning over with. With my lungs scorched from the lack of good air, my heart pounding in my chest demanding oxygen, and my mind racing for a solution, I started praying. I relaxed and began to open my mouth, when the current threw me up out of the water and carried me above its surface to the end of the course. I had lost complete control of the situation and been mastered by a more powerful force.

It seems most of us are taught control from the beginning of our lives. To be an adult, in part, means to be in control of one's self and all that touches one's self: one's life, one's emotions, one's finances, one's employment, one's relationships. The more control one appears to have of one's life and of one's self, the more one is admired and praised and the farther one advances in the world. The less control one appears to have of one's self and of one's life, the more one is shunned, pitied, and even ridiculed. Even if one lacks control in just one area of self or life, one becomes the object of gossip and is kept at a distance. It is what we are taught.

In football we're taught to control a certain part of the field and everyone who enters that space. No one controls us or our real estate.

"Keep control of the other player. You can't let him get by you like that."

"Way to show him who's in control!"

"You need to control the area from this gap to this gap. Do you understand?"

Control is, really, all wrestling is about. We have to be in complete control of ourselves physically, emotionally, and psychologically in order to completely control our opponents and either pin them or outscore them.

"You have to control his torso or that move is not going to work."

"You lost control of his arm and he was able to reverse you."

Life at home teaches similar lessons. My dad, for example, had complete control of everything that happened in the house and in our lives. To live in the house was to be in complete control of everything about yourself in order to submit to dad's control and avoid his wrath. My dad would frequently say, "Once you're an adult, you can do whatever you want. Until then, you do what I tell you to do." I grew up equating adulthood with being able to do whatever I wanted to do, while controlling everything around me. Many of us believe this.

Real life, though, is very different. We learn very quickly that we control very little that happens. Because of our training, though, we refuse to drop the lie and find another way of understanding the reality before us. We stress and worry and, many times, find destructive ways of coping with the conundrum before us, because we know that we are not adults unless we control everything. Many times, as we lose control of some parts of our lives, we attempt to reassert even more control of other parts of our lives and make life much more difficult for those we love and cherish.

This was brought home to me very painfully on the fire department. What we did or did not do had very little to do with the outcome of many of our patients nor how they chose to live their lives. The contradiction between working as a rescuer whose control of a situation was meant to ensure positive outcomes and the actual negative outcomes of many of those situations upon which we exerted maximum control made me very angry and very confused. At the same time, my marriage was slipping away from me and it seemed that nothing I did or did not do had any positive effect. After nine years of everything slipping out of my control, I lost everything. I had control of nothing.

Losing control can feel much like my experience submerged in that river. Being an adult, though, is not about controlling everything. It is about knowing what it is we do control and how much control to exert over that little bit. It is recognizing and being at peace with the knowledge that God is in control of it all and that we are better off for it. It is understanding that we lack the capacity to control the little bit we are called to control let alone everything else we seek to control. We must come to God to receive the strength, the courage, and the faith to control our concupiscence, the bit that is ours to control, so, truthfully, we control nothing.

But, then, enters the mystery. At the same time, we are responsible for the choices we make. We do control our own free will. We are responsible for informing our consciences in order to make decisions that comport with the will of God. We are responsible for spending time with God in the liturgy and the sacraments, in the Sacred Scriptures, and in prayer to learn God's will. These parts of our lives, we do control and we must in order to be at peace with the control we have over nothing else. Once we are at peace with that, however, we lose the anger, the stress, and the destructive coping. We become true adults, Christian adults and we begin to love.


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