Maria Dahvana Headley

Out of Control

As I mentioned in my bio (I trust you've memorized it by now, naturally), I suffered from disordered eating for many years, starting when I was sixteen. My teenaged years were not kind to me, and I responded to the vagaries of fate and the cruelty of my mother by controlling the only thing I could, my body. My mother monitored every morsel that crossed my lips, so of course I wanted to eat the world. But I didn't want to get fat. My friend showed me how to stick my fingers down my throat. Voila! Problem solved; I could have my cake and eat it too – all while wearing skinny jeans. I could get away with something. I could have something that was mine, mine, all mine – secrets. I could maintain control. All of us do it. Whether it's a daily ritual – performing morning ablutions in a specific order, or engaging in superstitious activities prior to getting on an airplane; I require my husband tell me that, "everything is going to be all right," before I step on a plane – each and every flight, before each leg of a journey, whether we are flying together or not. We think if we are excruciatingly careful –cross all our t's and dot every last I — nothing bad will happen. If we take our umbrella, it won't rain. If we avoid broken mirrors, our luck will hold. If we always use our turn signals, we will drive safely and avoid accidents. We believe that if we're with our children, they won't get sick or hurt. We strive to do what's expected of us in the hope that we'll get our white picket fence or whatever else constitutes our ideal HEA.

But here's the thing:  none of it matters. Control is an illusion, a soap bubble of iridescent beauty that we long to follow to the ends of the earth, only to have it pop the moment we try to touch it. Why am I feeling so fatalistic?   It’s Maria Dahvana Headley’s fault. I’m enthralled by her extraordinary new novel, Queen of Kings, about Cleopatra, vampire and destroyer of worlds.  In Queen of Kings, Cleopatra tries to control her life’s outcome by summoning the goddess Sehkmet, and in so doing, she destroys everything.

There is a formula for happiness and contentment that exhorts us to take action and let go of the results: to act as if everything were up to us and pray as if all results were up to God. We can only do what we can do. And we can't do what we cannot do. Sounds simplistic, I know, but how many of us actually take these axioms to heart? Very few of us.

Too many of us force our wills all over our lives and the lives of those around us. You know what I mean; we want something to work so badly, or we believe that a certain outcome is critical to our happiness or success, so we move heaven and earth to achieve it (or we try, at least).  We sacrifice time, relationships, our health and our wealth to “make” something happen.  We try to force an issue through brute strength or dogged persistence or saccharine sweetness. When our efforts fail, we redouble our efforts, only to stand stymied when our children do something irrevocably stupid, or we don't get the job, or our spouse walks out on us, commenting that, "I'm not happy."  Even worse, we are baffled when the doctor pronounces a dread disease, or a promising treatment fails to deliver despite our best efforts and entreaties to God.  Cleopatra goes down this road with disastrous results—she wants to ensure eternity for herself and her love, Mark Antony, and she is willing to do anything or give anything up to achieve that—including her soul.  We all know what happens when we make Faustian bargains.  And yet we do it anyway—convinced we know what we need to make us happy or complete. We believe that what we need is control over outcomes.  If only… fill in the blank any way you want. If only we had control, all would be well.

But, we have no control. We just like to pretend we do. We listen to motivational speakers and Nike ads that tell us to ‘just do it.’ And we do. Which is great. But then what?  What happens when one of my wonderful indie author friends finally gets her book published, only to see her sales fall to single digits, despite the quality of the material? How can we believe there is any literary control to be had when 50 Shades of Grey is a blockbuster, and Rose Montague, Lilo J. Abernathy and Elle Boca aren't on all the bestseller lists?  No control.

The way I figure it, if Cleopatra, with all her power and influence, couldn't make things turn out to her liking, how will we lesser mortals fare?  If Princess Di can be cut down in the full flower of life, anyone can be, right?  If Paul Walker can die so senselessly, what master plan could be in play? No control. We have no control.

So what does that mean?  Does it mean we throw our hands in the air and the the towel down to the ground and say, "The hell with it?"  Of course not. It means that we continue to take action. Perhaps not the kind chosen by the vampiric version of the Queen of the Nile, but action nonetheless.

Because we can be certain of only one thing:  while we can't guarantee the outcomes of our actions, we can reliably predict the result of inaction: nothing.

So, we must summon strength from our God(s), rituals, or magical thinking, and keep on keeping on because while we can’t control most outcomes, wresting control of our fate via inaction won't give us the outcomes we're hoping to achieve.  No control.