Control and the Innocence of the Child

by Bob Scharf

Control and the Innocence of the Child
Sunday April 01, 2001

The Need for Control

Certainly there are times when it is important that one control what one can. However, it is very often the case that people feel the need to control when it is not necessary or not possible. A simple example is pressing an elevator button which is already lighted or weaving in and out of traffic to arrive at a destination only a few seconds earlier. The driver feels frustrated being behind a slow moving motorist and must pass, lest the slow moving motorist dictate the pace.
We have all seen bosses create arbitrary policies to contain their own irrational fears. I have seen a manager lock an exit for the last hour of business as a measure to prevent theft. This measure jeopardized safety while doing nothing to prevent people from smuggling items out of the building before the last hour of business.
I have known people to take medicines which they knew had no efficacy because they felt they “had to do something.” The reader can easily think of examples where people take useless measures rather than do nothing because of the powerful need to feel in control of a situation.

The Illusion of Control

What these people do is not really take control–which is often not possible–but create the illusion of control. This is the purpose of many superstitions, particularly those regarding “fortune.” Examples include knocking wood when speaking about favorable events, avoiding “jinxes” like walking under a ladder, and sundry other superstitions concerning “luck.” In this regard, there is an interesting superstition involving baseball. If a pitcher has not allowed a hit, some hold that mention of this fact jeopardizes the pitcher’s continued performance of this feat. In the old days announcers and fans at baseball games took this superstition seriously and refrained from commenting on this fact. I have seen fans come to blows and even end lifelong friendships because one of them did not honor this custom.
Obviously there is more at stake here than the outcome of a baseball game. Superstitions of this type extend the illusion of control. It is “empowering” (in fantasy) for a fan at a baseball game to imagine that he holds the pitcher’s fate in his hands. Superstitions are also anxiety producing. The person who breaks a mirror and imagines that bad luck will follow will not often be at ease.
Let us emphasize these two important tendencies which are part of superstitions involving fortune and control of fortune: they represent an omnipresent anxiety about existence and an illusory way of combating this anxiety. We note that this puts the individual at the center of the universe. That is, according to the superstitious world view, bad things don’t happen to people randomly; they happen because people fail to ward them off.

The Foundation of Religious Thinking

Such superstitious thinking is the foundation of religious thinking. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is one’s sinful nature which causes a just god to impose punishment and to maintain the moral balance. In the East, the idea of karma posits the same maintenance. When religions and philosophies speak of making sense of the world, they usually mean rejecting the idea that things just happen and offering a notion that things happen for a reason. This reason usually involves the responsibility of the individual or individuals. Be it a personal tragedy or a natural disaster, people imagine it is due to their transgressions – the sense of being unworthy.

The Sense of Being Unworthy

What is it that fuels this sense of being unworthy? What fuels the need for the illusion of control and the feeling that one is responsible for bad fortune?
I believe that these are a projection of the parent-child relationship. It is well known that the abused child will blame the self rather than the parent. The child who is threatened by parental abuse needs to feel that the parent is not really hostile and dangerous. The child instead imagines that the abuse is a result of the child’s own behaviors or unworthiness. This is much less frightening. If the child could see the situation clearly, the child would know that parental abuse is a product of the parent’s own issues, not anything having to do with the child. Yet this would involve the recognition that the parent might indeed destroy the child, as parents often do. Toward off this fear, the child imagines that the parent is benevolent and that the child deserves the abuse the parent inflicts. This creates the illusion of control.
As an adult the individual continues to experience this conflict in the form of the beliefs we discussed above: superstitions concerning a dangerous and hostile world which one can combat by taking action or being different than one is. This informs religious belief and also political world views which imagine that society is just and that it is a meritocracy in which people get what they deserve–the belief in a just world. We have noted that, on the one hand, this view is “empowering” because one always seems to have recourse. This might be found in prayer or in some form of self-improvement. On the other hand, it is an anxiety ridden world view because one can never be perfect and therefore one can never be free of the threat of retribution.

The View of the Child

Another consequence of the superstitious world view is that the individual cannot view the child as innocent. Or rather, the superstitious world view is a product of not being able to see the child-self as innocent. On discussion lists and in conversations, I have seen people become irate at the suggestion that the child is innocent. This is because seeing the child as bad is such an important defense. If the child is innocent – if the self was an innocent child – then the parents did intend harm and there was/is nothing that can stop it!
Of course, the belief that the self is responsible for parental abuse does not diminish the threat of parental harm in actuality, but only in fantasy. Yet this is an important way of containing anxiety and creating the illusion of control.
Alice Miller’s assertion that the child is innocent threatens this defense and the world views which are built upon it. Accordingly, the view of the child as innocent is a most liberating idea. It frees us from superstitious world views and allows empathy and compassion. This compassion can promote political views which do not blame the victims and promote philosophical views which allow us to accept that there are things beyond our control.
This frees us from many bogies. The view of the child as innocent is a wonderful key. It may be frightening at first to imagine that one was once innocent and did not deserve childhood abuse – that one was a victim. Yet when we can recognize this, we can move forward to a more compassionate and rational world view.