Jewish Living - Who is in Control? By Rabbi Abraham J. Twersky, M.D.

One of the most thorny issues we deal with in psychology is control. If there is any single thing that can upset a relationship of any kind, it is the attempt to control another person, which is as wrong as it is futile. Husbands may try to control wives, wives may try to control husbands, friends may try to control friends, parents may try to control children, and yes, children may try to control parents.

Perhaps if we had better kavanah [concentration] when reciting the Shema, we might avoid this difficulty. We say that Hashem is One, and the only One, and the commentaries say that when we say echod [one], we should think "Hashem is the Master who controls everything in all four corners of the world." Inasmuch as this concept is contained in the word echod, it should make us realize that Hashem is the only one who is in full control, and that we humans have relatively little control. The only exception is that Hashem divests Himself of control of our moral behavior, in which we have complete freedom of choice, and this aspect of our lives is the only thing we can control.

The control issue may not have been as great a problem in former days, when we had relatively little control of anything. For example, when travel was by horse and buggy, a driver would get the horse to turn to the right by pulling on the rein. This caused the horse discomfort, which was relieved when he turned to the right. The driver did not really control the horse, but rather made it an offer that was difficult to refuse. If the horse was very hungry and saw a pile of hay to the left, it is conceivable that it would have tolerated the discomfort and gone for the hay instead of turning to the right.

This changed radically with the introduction of the automobile, where the driver actually controls the way the car will go. Our capacity to control has greatly expanded. We can control a number of electrical appliances from a distance by dialing certain numbers on the telephone. When Explorer II was beyond the limits of the solar system, it still responded to orders from the space center, some two billion miles away. Technology has given us unprecedented control.

The feeling of control may set in at an early age. As a child, I had a toy truck which I pushed along the floor. Recently I saw a three-year-old child gleefully pushing buttons on a panel, whereby he controlled a little car all the way across the room. With so much control at our fingertips, it is understandable why we may have extended our concept of control to include other people as well.

Being controlled by another person is demeaning and we resist it. Furthermore, there appears to be an innate resistance to control that occurs before we can even think in terms of pride and insult. If you watch a mother try to feed her six-month-old infant, you are likely to see a battle of wills. The baby’s clamping his mouth tightly when the mother tries to push in a spoonful of food is nothing other than his resistance to being controlled by his mother.

The mechanisms we attempt to use to control others may range form subtle to flagrant, but whichever, it may create a great deal of friction in any relationship. If we but divest ourselves of the illusion of control, our relationships will be much more pleasant.

King Solomon says, "Chanoch lanaar al pi darko; Train the child according to his way." Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that this translation is inaccurate, and the correct translation is "Give training to the child," by which it is meant that a child, even your own child, is not an object you can mold. You can give the training to him, but you are powerless to make him accept it.

Reasonable people can be helped to understand what is good or bad for them, but we may undermine this understanding if we try to impose our will on them by force. When approached with reasoning, it is possible to negotiate and compromise where necessary, but if we try to compel, we encourage defiant reaction.

It is a full-time task to control the area of our lives which God has left to us; i.e., our moral-ethical behavior. We cannot control the behavior of others. If we would only realize this, we would stop wasting time and energy in the attempt to control others, and direct our efforts to what we can control: ourselves.

The founder and medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, Dr. Twerski is one of the country’s leading experts on alcohol and drug rehabilitation. He is the author of numerous books and his column is regularly featured in Jewish Action.

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