COMES NATURALLY #145
Copyright © 2004 David Steinberg
DON'T WORRY: EVERYTHING'S UNDER CONTROL
Oh you who must leave everything that you cannot control It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul Well I've been where you're hanging, I think I can see how you're pinned: When you're not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you've sinned.
- Leonard Cohen
There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.
- also Leonard Cohen
Whenever I telephone my 83-year-old father, we start with a verbal ritual, decades old.
"Hi, dad. It's David," I begin. "How are you?"
"Everything's under control," he answers, as predictably as the morning sunrise.
"Everything's under control" is my dad's way of saying that he is good, that things are basically right with the world, that disaster and disruption -- the potential consequences of being out of control -- have successfully been held at bay for another day, another week, another month. A product of the Great Depression and the gender expectations of his time, my dad spent most of his years making sure that his life, and the lives of the people closest to him, stayed under control. His lifelong vocation was selling life insurance -- a service, he believed, that helped other people keep their lives under control, too. My father has been quite successful at keeping life under control, and I grew up taking the safety and predictability of my father's realized control dream pretty much for granted. It's an upbringing I now think of as both a blessing and a curse.
As I write this, we are three months into the year 3 P.N.E. (Post-Nine-Eleven), the third year of what the neocons have proudly (and perhaps presciently) designated the New American Century. The depth of the fear and insecurity that have been planted in the national psyche by Osama bin Laden's challenge to our previous national sense of invincibility will not be fully understood for years, for decades, perhaps ever. But it's already clear that American consciousness has been decisively rearranged in a way that affects everything from how we vote, to what we drive, to where we live, to when and whether we marry or divorce, to how we raise our kids, to how we walk, to how we think about sex -- both the specifics of our literal sex lives and, more metaphorically, how we signify and evaluate sex in the world around us.
Control is in. Being in control is in. Even being controlled is in. Sales of the mobile tanks we call SUVs are booming. The other day, before I could cash a check that had been written to me, I had to plant my fingerprint on it so that my mark could be registered in the growing national fingerprint database. UPS, which used to leave packages on my secluded small-town porch, even when a signature was technically required, now insists that I be present to sign off on every parcel sent to me. The woman in front of me at the airport, removing her shoes to be dusted for explosive residues after waiting in line for 45 minutes, told the officious young TSA guard how happy she was to submit to the new national ritual of rigorous travel protection. "Thank you for saying that, ma'am," the stern-faced screener responded with surprising emotion. "Your safety is what this is all about."
People will do a lot -- and put up with a lot -- to feel safe, to feel secure, to feel that life is reasonably predictable, to feel that they know more or less what's coming next, what lies around that approaching blind curve in the road. It doesn't matter that, for all the wasted time, inconvenience, intrusion, and security pageantry, passenger screening at airports is so patently ineffective that people still board planes with undetected guns, knives, bullets, and nail clippers. It doesn't matter that every day we stay in Iraq inspires dozens of angry young men to plot a future terrorist attack against the U.S. It doesn't matter that people with guns are three times more likely to be killed or injured than people without them, independent of race, age, or economic demographics. What people desperately want in these confused times is not real safety but the impression of safety, and even seemingly transparent illusions of safety seem to be quite effective in allaying the underlying sense of panic that rushes like a mighty river just below the surface of daily American life-as-usual.
The advocates of regulation tell us that the way to safety is through increased control -- control over the details of daily life, control over who gets to do what (and when, and where), control over what we know (or what someone knows) about the backgrounds, thoughts, activities, buying habits, reading habits, thinking habits of the people around us -- not to mention control over what happens and who's in charge of things in more and more places around the globe.
Confused and frightened, Americans are investing more trust in the ministers of control than they have at any other time in recent history. Week after week we hear of people gladly, almost gleefully, submitting to degrees of regulation and intrusion that would have been utterly unthinkable as recently as September 10, 2001. It's not surprising, I suppose, but it is profoundly discouraging nevertheless. It's true that in situations of real and concrete danger, the ability to assert control, specifically and effectively, can spell the difference between life and death, success and failure, happiness and tragedy. But there's a difference between concrete, focused ways of affecting what happens to us and the vague, uncertain, and generally ineffective instruments and symbols of control that are now being propagated and embraced at every turn.
As unfashionable and untimely as it may be, I want to make a case for the importance of not being in control -- the importance of relinquishing control, the magic that comes from willfully and intentionally spiraling out of control. I'm thinking generally about the importance of spontaneity and mystery in our lives, but also, more specifically, about sex, and about what is, to me, one of the most important aspects of sex.
Sex -- the deeper kind of sex, the kind of sex that reaches down into your bones, into your root, into your primal psyche -- is, at its heart, exactly the opposite of the impulse to be in control of ourselves and of everything around us. The core power of sex -- the essential opportunity that the gift of sex offers us, physically, emotionally, and archetypally -- is the opportunity to lose control, to drop the reins and the puppet strings, to give ourselves over to something bigger and much more powerful than ourselves, bigger and more powerful than our conscious intents and manipulations, bigger and more powerful than our rational egos.
The impish god Eros knocks on our door to suggest the possibility of relating to the world not as essentially threatening and dangerous but as primordially magical and wondrous. The essential life force of Eros invites us to experience the freedom and exhilaration of going wildly and wonderfully out of control -- maybe during a few seconds of orgasm, maybe in sex for a much longer time than that, maybe, beyond sex, as a fundamental way of life. Eros calls us to experience the security that comes from discovering that, if we allow ourselves to step off the edge of the manageable universe, the World As We Know It will be waiting patiently and reliably for us when we return -- essentially unchanged, undisturbed, solid and comforting and reassuring as ever.
One of the core lessons of sex -- one of the core realities we rehearse each time we experience sex in a deeply releasing, satisfying way -- is that when we let go of the compulsion to constantly control ourselves and the world around us, the result can be bliss not disaster, pleasure not pain, joy not misery.
We need this lesson. We need this lesson more than ever during these times of danger and uncertainty. We need this lesson because in times such as these it would be easy to forget that, despite real uncertainty and loss, despite frustration and disappointment, despite cruelty and injustice, there is still profound delight to be found in loving, passionate existence, embraced and celebrated, complete with all its confusion and chaos. These days, we especially need to remember that it is an exciting and energizing life force that swirls around us minute after minute, day after day, searching for cracks in our increasingly dense layers of armor through which it can enter -- not to destroy us but to brighten and enrich who we are.
Every time we protect ourselves, we pay a price. Every time we defend ourselves, we sacrifice some degree of being open and welcoming of life. Sure, protection and defense are necessary sometimes, but they're never free. And defending ourselves excessively, unnecessarily, or misguidedly, only leaves us feeling less alive, less fulfilled, more miserable, more confused, and as a result more frightened than ever.
It's no accident that the people who most want to use the fear and uncertainty of these times to impose draconian control over everything we do are also the people who are the most frightened of sex and all that it represents. The people who see the devil at work when teenagers rub their bodies together at the senior prom are the same people who see the devil at work when Arabs protest U.S. policies in the Middle East. It's not that sex is a panacea -- some kind of uncomplicated, all-encompassing balm that can take away the real dilemmas of these threatened and threatening times. But the power of sexual abandon can reassure us that there are positive and life-affirming alternatives to compulsive control as we struggle to make our peace with ongoing uncertainty and turmoil. And the experience of letting go of control through sex can give us the strength and grounding to accept and even celebrate uncertainty and mystery as fundamental aspects of life fully lived.
"I want this," poet Lenore Kandel says of powerful sex in her typically wise "Love-Lust Poem." "I want our bodies sleek with sweat, whispering, biting, sucking. I want the way it wraps around us and pulls us incredibly together. I want to come and come and come with your arms holding me tight against you. I want you to explode that hot spurt of pleasure inside me, and I want to lie there with you, smelling the good smell of fuck that's all over us, and you kiss me with that aching sweetness, and there is no end to love."
Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at email@example.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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