Queen D looks at control this week and asks, “Has the pendulum swung too far?”
Queen D is on a quest to investigate control. From forever ago, control has been held by the powerful few to subjugate the masses with a hierarchical system of laws and taxes, and imaginative punishments for disobedience. For centuries, control cascaded down from monarch to minion and everyone knew their place. With a few exceptions.
In Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, Henry VIII orders his Lord High Chancellor Thomas More to swear an oath so Henry can divorce his wife and marry his mistress. Taking the oath compromises More’s Christian faith and he refuses, sending his loving wife Alice into hysterical pleas for him to stop defying the king and save his own life. More’s gentle explanation to Alice speaks volumes.
“I neither could nor would rule my King. But there’s a little little area where I must rule myself. It’s very little—less to him than a tennis court.”
More’s conscience, as insignificant to Henry VIII as a measly tennis court in his vast kingdoms, is nevertheless the one tiny dominion over which the king has no control. The king sentenced his one-time friend to death for defying him. Henry VIII is history’s ultimate control freak. Like some untamed toddler, this monstrous monarch was immune to the word “no”. What Henry wanted, Henry got. The penalty for anyone daring to say no was a swift separation of head from body. It was control by terror.
To control is to manage, restrain or limit something. At its worst, it manifests itself in the bully who knows no bounds. In its absence lie control-free zones.
Queen D has a theory about control. It’s really different for us now. Join me in my time machine and travel back fifty years. There we see control was mass subjugation, particularly of women. At work, the boss, usually a man, was feared. He controlled jobs, wages, promotion or demotion, bonus or docked pay. At home, he was likely to have control of the family finances and discipline. Control in the community was exercised through the power of status and class. Petty rules ensured conformity. You would no more call a newly introduced neighbour by his first name than run naked through Harrods. Deference and respect were expected and received, however misplaced. Your elders were your betters, and children were instructed not to speak unless spoken to. Without control by such strict rules, it was feared society would descend into chaos. We know now the chaos lay in a stinking morass beneath the Victoria sponges and tinkling teacups. Nothing is ever quite what it seems at the time.
Tardis Travel lands us back in familiar territory – April 2017. Such control by a boss is no longer acceptable or legal. No one except maybe a Regimental Sergeant Major can bark orders. Imposed discipline is de rigueur at work and at home. We use persuasion not power to encourage and inspire. The control freak is a demon. Incisive instruction is now passive request, particularly in child rearing. “Do it because I say so” is now “perhaps you need some time out to think about why you feel angry and consider the reasons why you buried granny in the garden.”
These days, the individual reigns supreme. We worship at the altar of personal development, we aspire to a self fulfilled life, and achieving balance of self is the zenith of our age. We control our lives through our strong sense of self and its bedfellows – self reliance, self analysis, self regulation, self worth and self control.
Control of ourselves is power, and with power in our lives, we control its direction and its content. We steer the ship, drive the car, pilot the plane! We control our own destinies! Or do we? When does self fulfillment tip over into self gratification, self awareness into self satisfaction? Do we use our ability to control to become plain bloody selfish?
And if we have so much more choice and control of our lives, why then does life sometimes feel so chaotic and out of control?
Let’s face it. From the controlled restraint of the fifties, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. There is chaotic decadence around us. However hard we try to control our lives, the less control we seem to have. No wonder our elders scoff at our feeble attempts to control galloping debt and wild children. We simply don’t have the skills to manage control.
There is plenty we can learn from the previous generations as we struggle to control our lives. The daily struggle was simpler in their day, with less choice and more rules so perhaps we could try to regain control by limiting excess and restricting choice. It’s a start.
When push came to shove for Thomas More, and he was faced with a stark choice of life or death, he retreated to that tiny space in himself where even the king was barred. The space was his conscience, the seat of his integrity, his “self”.
Queen D hasn’t a religious atom in her right royal body, but there’s a hymn I adore. It ends with the line “that still small voice of calm.” Thomas More listened to that voice of calm in his tennis court of conscience. It was there, deep inside himself, that he found the inner strength to make hard choices, and the peace of knowing it was right for him. This is the part of our “self” we may have ignored in our pursuit of control. We seek its simplicity. We crave its strength and peace when our life seems out of control. We need to learn how to find it.