What are you willing to give to get your own way? How much effort are you willing to expend? What are you willing to pay? to sacrifice? What’s it worth to you?
History has taught us some hard lessons that, if we look around us, most people have not yet learned. For example, one-third of our country alone is wiling to give up everything—money, property, friends, family, their faith in God, the lives of others, and even their own lives—and for what? To maintain the illusion of control. Control is ultimately always an illusion. I would even say that it’s the most persistent and destructive illusion that there is. It’s been at the core of every disagreement, every argument, every fight, and every war since we humans attained self-consciousness. It destroys relationships, it destroys nations and governments, it destroys religions, it destroys lives, and it may well destroy humanity. The illusion of control is, in point of fact, our original sin. And it is deadly.
You may be thinking, “Wait a minute…we do have control, don’t we? Didn’t God give us ‘dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth’ [Genesis 1:28]? Don’t we have free will and control over our choices and actions? How can you say that control is an illusion?”
Yes, we have dominion over the material world. And yes, we have control over our thoughts, words, and actions. But face it: even this control is limited. We are not free to violate the laws of nature. We are not free of the genetic, psychological, and emotional forces that formed us as individuals. Even in those realms where we can exercise our influence, our control is not absolute. We delude ourselves if we think that it is. And yet, we continue to fight a losing battle against the forces of nature, both exterior and interior to ourselves. We may win a battle now and again, while we stubbornly refuse to admit that the war is unwinnable.
Those little successes we have in our struggle to maintain control are, themselves, illusory. There is a much more basic fallacy at play here. Our illusion of control rests on our confusion between the ends and the means of our actions. To the extent that we can exercise control, we do so only over the means, but never over the ends. We may have some control over how we choose to act, but we can never control the outcomes of our actions. The means may sometimes be in our hands, but the results never are. Those belong to God alone. The belief that we can determine results is the illusion of control.
This illusion, we have seen, is not without its consequences. You heard what Saint James wrote in our second reading.
Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. …Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? …You covet but you do not possess. You kill and envy, but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war. You do not possess because you do not ask. You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.[James 3:16-4:3]
Control can be so overwhelming a desire—and lack of control so great a terror—that people become willing to sacrifice anything to maintain the illusion. Not only are they willing to deplete their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual resources to achieve it, they convince themselves that the harm they cause to others in the process is merely “collateral damage.” Thus, they absolve themselves of any responsibility for the harm they cause. In fact, they go even farther and blame their victims for their own injuries, calling them ignorant, misguided, or evil because they got in their way.
None of us is entirely free from the illusion of control. All of us, from time to time, tell ourselves, “I’ve got this.” What we’re really saying when we think and act as if we could determine outcomes is, “I don’t need God. …In fact, I am God.” If I am God, if I am master of my own destiny, then I have no need for gratitude. Gratitude is replaced by self-satisfaction. “After all, look at what I have accomplished!”
In today’s gospel, when Jesus found his disciples arguing over which of them was the greatest, the most important, the most influential—in other words, who had the most control—the Lord took a little child and put him in their midst. The child was the perfect example because, in the strict sense, the child was innocent. That word did not originally mean sexually naive as it does today. The word comes from the Latin verb nocere, meaning ‘to wound.’ Innocent, therefore means not-wounding. Harmless. Powerless. Dependent. The child is the one who does not exercise absolute control, neither over himself nor over others. It’s the discontented and frustrated child who will not accept his status and tries to act like an adult. It’s the rebellious child who will not bend his will to those entrusted with his care. It’s the petulant child who sees himself as victim.
As we strive to attain the illusion of control in our lives, have we become discontented, rebellious, and petulant children? Our metanoia—our change of mind and heart—and our return to innocence consists of only two decisions: 1) we can decide to accept life on life’s terms rather than life as we wish it were and 2) we can surrender to the One who determines all outcomes, saying at every juncture, “Thy will, not mine, be done,” and meaning it. Those two incredibly powerful decisions lead us inevitably to gratitude. As Dag Hammarskjöld once prayed, “For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes.”
If you’re looking for a way to measure how close you are to becoming the innocent child that Jesus gave us as a model, simply measure the time it takes you to go from upset to gratitude. The easier it is for us to find gratitude in even the most difficult situations, the closer we are to becoming that child.