In elementary school I attended a small private Christian school in south Louisiana. We wore scratchy plaid jumpers and white button down shirts with red ties at the collars. There were rules about the color of our shoes and the length of our socks (crew, not ankle or knee). Between classes we walked in a straight line with our hands folded in front of us. At lunch, we sat together as a class, but we weren’t allowed to talk unless the teacher gave us permission. We memorized Bible verses every morning and prayed before we ate.
I was a good student. Straight A’s all around. Except for Conduct. Every Wednesday we were given a packet of papers to take home to our parents. The packet was a collection of the graded tests and homework assignments we’d completed over the past week On the front of the packet was a pink slip that reported our Conduct grade for the week There were also various options for the teacher to check off – either things we were doing well (“Following directions”) or things we were doing wrong, (“Talking out of turn”). My Conduct score was the bane of my young existence.
The problem was that from a very young age, I was a people-pleaser. And I was equally consumed by the desire to please my parents and my teachers as I was by the desire to please my classmates. Which meant I was trying to walk a tight line between dazzling my teachers and parents with my academic prowess and good behavior while endearing myself to my peers with my natural hilarity and penchant for drama.
I was pretty good at estimating what my conduct score would be each week because points were deducted every time the teacher took your name out of the “wisdom pot” at the front of the classroom.* So if I kept track of how many times my name got removed I could estimate my conduct score and prepare myself for the consequences I would receive when I got home. This worked pretty well until one day towards the end of first grade when my teacher, Mrs. Melancon, outsmarted me.
She handed out the weekly packets face-down (as if that was going to keep us from looking at them). I casually started flipping through mine from the back.
Spelling Test A+ – Duh
Math Test A+ –Nailed it
Bible Test A+ – I didn’t win the Bible Scholar award last year for nothing
Conduct C- – What the…..?
I was expecting an A- here. I mean, I’d been a little extra hilarious lately, but my name had only been out of the pot twice. Maybe three times. I did what any wronged 1st grader would do. I confronted my teacher about her mistake. I demanded she fix my score.
Mrs. Melancon looked at me calmly and told me that she had been marking down my conduct score without removing my name from the pot all week. Well, played, you sneaky bastard. (At least, that’s what I would have thought if I had known that word). Then she asked me to recite the Proverb we had been memorizing that week.
“Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control,” I recited dutifully.
She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips. “Sound like anyone you know?”
I avoided her eyes, went back to my seat, and tried to think of a way to make the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach go away.
I didn’t really understand the metaphor – I was seven after all. But I felt this rebuke down to my toes. It was clear now that this wasn’t just about making my teacher mad or my parents disappointed. I seemed to have let God down. I was the foolish man the Scripture condemned. And I was only seven! Things did not bode well for me if I didn’t shape up. I needed to figure out this self-control thing ASAP.
The need to be in control has wrecked me. Planning for all contingencies and thinking twenty steps ahead have become part of my personality, but these traits are at war with another part of my personality – the part of me that craves spontaneity and adventure and fears boredom above all else. These two aspects of my personality are constantly colliding, then bouncing off each other and pulling me with equal strength in opposing directions. As someone who “feels all the feels” this makes me crazy. Like the angry/crying for no reason/snapping at everyone/unable-to- articulate-what-is-wrong-or-what-could-possibly-make-it-better kind of crazy.
I have long viewed self-control as one of my biggest character flaws – my greatest struggles boil down to a lack of self-control over my words, my actions, my emotions, or even my food choices. I have tried to combat this with self-inflicted guilt, with careful planning to do better, and with desperate prayers for help when I feel out of control. But I’ve started to wonder lately if maybe being in control and having self-control are entirely different things. In fact, maybe my problem isn’t a lack of self-control at all. It’s an obsession with controlling things that aren’t my responsibility at all.
What if instead of trying to control my emotions and master them I acknowledged them as a part of how God made me and simply accepted what I feel as valid – even if it isn’t a pretty emotion?
What if instead of trying to control all of the circumstances around me so that I could prepare myself to act rightly, I recognized that I’m not in control of all of my circumstances and rested in the knowledge that someone wiser and more powerful is?
What if instead of trying to suppress my appetite or control my consumption with guilt, I recognized my appetite as a sign that there is a need and focused on discerning what the need is and how it could be met?
What if I stopped beating myself up for lacking self-control and started loving myself in spite of my frailty? What if I understood my lack of control as an invitation for Grace to come in and take over?
No matter what I try to convince myself, the truth is that most things really aren’t in my control anyway. What if I started acting like it?
*The wisdom pot was a laminated gold pot with individual gold pieces stuck on with velcro. Each gold piece had a student’s name on it and if the student was being foolish their name would be removed from the wisdom pot as a deterrent against further foolishness. There were also further levels, sometimes involving a check mark beside your gold piece or the piece being moved to a different location and these corresponded with different punishments.