When Life Is Beyond Your Control

I regularly enjoy conversations with seven or eight friends, all retired university faculty. Recently, I’ve become aware that at least three of them are profoundly alarmed by Trump and Trumpism. They talk about Trump incessantly and seem personally frightened by his actions. I’ve intended to tell them just to take a good stiff drink and forget it. But I’ve come to realize that won’t work for them

I certainly don’t disagree with their politics. It’s fairly obvious to me that our president is an evil, greedy bastard who, thus far, has evinced little interest in the common good. Yet human personal and political reality is never that clear cut. Most of us know that good people can do bad things. But my friends seem unaware that sometimes bad people do good things. The current trade talks seem to bode well for the middle class, just as Trump promised. So what’s really intriguing to me is why some get so profoundly upset, fearful and alarmed by the situation.

The issue, I realized a few months ago, is what’s referred to as locus-of-control. What we mean by that distinction is that some believe their lives are controlled by outside forces rather than their own efforts. You can draw a continuum with internal locus of control at one end and external locus of control at the other. And people will vary along the continuum.

The research
San Diego State’s Jean Twenge and two colleagues have studied this issue and noted significant change over the period 1960 to 2002. Their research reveals that the average college student of 2002 was more external than 80% college students in 1960. That’s a profound increase. And, I believe it’s continuing to increase. Although their sampling is built solely on college students, I suspect that may also explain my colleagues’ alarm.

It’s obvious to me that the larger social environment will influence a person’s beliefs about locus-of-control—to a greater or lesser degree. Countries influence beliefs and personalities through the mechanisms of culture, including jobs, entertainment, technology, wars (Vietnam?) and even social rules and etiquette.

So the research concludes with a paradox: as individualism has increased, the locus of control has become more external. The cynicism and alienation of today leads people to believe that their personal actions mean little. Blaming of others has become more popular, leading people to believe that there is little they can do to change their own world. Of course, as parents become more external over time, they may pass on these attitudes to their children. The research further suggests that these views are reaching children at an early age today.

Ummm. So what?
Obviously I see the implications of the increasing, external, locus-of-control as more than unfortunate. As the researchers find, the implications are “almost uniformly negative.” The result is a failure to try to remedy unpleasant situations to bring about rewarding outcomes. The recent publication of books pooh-poohing and rejecting self-improvement are only indicative of Kierkegaard’s “sickness unto death.”

Already an octogenarian, I continue to believe and act upon my own internal locus-of-control. Certainly there are situations beyond our control. Take for example, the current immigration policies, events beyond a persons’ control. I believe, however, that the resulting unhappiness is unnecessary over the long term.

Why? I still believe and act upon the faith that there is an active god in this world, making possible a distinctive capacity for life. What we see and read into situations often reveals as much about ourselves: our quirks, prejudices and vanities. Those back and forth movements between the self and this world may find that the devil is in the details–but so is god. The Koran, Islam’s bible, emphasizes the inclination toward choice and the good, affirming the personal delights of active behaviors like feeding the poor. It even announces that this is the aim of god’s creation. In like fashion Hinduism affirms in Karma that the ability to choose life’s actions and create your own destiny is part and parcel of being human. No belief in helplessness there.

In the Old Testament, the “Spirit” is an attempt to speak about Israel’s conviction that the world is god’s arena. Talk about it anyway you wish: the Hellenic language of the “Third Person” or “Holy Ghost.” Or, if you wish, as the operation of the Force that puts the decisive governance of human life well beyond human control or explanation. But here’s what’s really important in all faiths as in the Judeo-Christian bible: humanity works with God to create a better world.

These religious insights structure reality far better than our secular ways, even though the secular often supports them. They inform life constructively, especially when so many seem to be giving up control. The lack of a religious reality structure makes all of life rather thin. Or, as in the case of my friends, it makes victimization their reality.

In sum, the belief that we have no choice, no internal control of life, is damnably stupid and death-giving. It’s not just our living faiths, but in their own limited, supposedly scientific fashion, psychology and the psychologists are in full agreement.


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