A Frantic Attempt at Control

Few people instill a greater sense of loathing than Dolores Umbridge. If you know Umbridge, you undoubtedly share in my revulsion at just the sight of her name. If you don’t know her, let me introduce you. Dolores Umbridge is a character in book five of the Harry Potter series, entitled The Order of the Phoenix. She is the epitome of the seemingly sweet, passive-aggressive, controlling, manipulative mother you see on television and in the movies, only with a large side helping of evil, vindictive cruelty. She will stop at nothing to gain power and control over everyone around her. One of her most sadistic exploits occurs early in book five, when Umbridge punishes Harry Potter with a week of detention for standing up and speaking the truth while she was trying to disseminate lies. His detention took the form of Harry writing the line, “I will not tell lies” for seven hours every day for a week. Only it was no normal quill Harry was writing with, it was a quill that carved whatever you wrote into the flesh of your hand again and again, until the impression was so deep that the writer would see its imprint for weeks as it scabbed and scarred over. Moreover, the quill drew blood from the writer and used it as ink. Some people will stop at nothing to gain and maintain control.

Dolores Umbridge may be a caricature, but we respond so strongly to her character because we know that she represents real people in this world, people we know! Maybe it’s a boss, a coworker, a pastor, a husband, wife, or child. Regardless of who it might be, we interact on a daily basis with people who display this kind of insatiable need for control.

Stained GlassAnd our culture lauds it.

Is it not true that we tend to value others and ourselves by how well we control the circumstances around us? The more you can handle, the more you can take on while keeping everything on the outside looking clean and tidy (i.e. under control), the more successful and worthy you appear to others. This worldview is lived out every day in our work, in our families, and even in our churches.

I’ve spent the last three years doing ministry on the college campus of Emory University in Atlanta, GA. The student body of Emory is extremely diverse. In our ministry we had students from China, Jamaica, Haiti, Nigeria, Peru, and many other parts of the world. The students there are some of the best and brightest this world has to offer; yet there is a clear and obvious need in their lives. Even with the wide range of cultural and ideological backgrounds present, they all desperately long for the same elusive yet seemingly attainable goal: control.

If I learned one thing in my time there, it’s that this desire for control is deeply rooted in all of us. The desire for control is something we all understand. When we are in control we feel powerful, capable, and valuable. When we lose control we feel helpless, overwhelmed, and worthless. This is particularly true on the college campus because there are so many clear standards by which to track one’s control or lack of it.

  • How many hours are you taking this semester?
  • How are you doing in your classes?
  • What extracurricular groups have you joined?
  • Are you doing any lab research or internships?
  • What graduate school do you want to attend?

The questions go on. The more you can handle while keeping everything on the outside looking clean and tidy (i.e. under control), the more successful and valuable you appear to others. But there is another question that is not asked. Why do we long for control? In my experience at Emory, I found that students crave control in their academic, extracurricular, and vocational lives primarily because they feel like they have such little control in their relational lives.

A significant number of students are children of divorced parents. When these children lose the control and stability of their family, many of them turn to something they are gifted at: academics. Their grades are something they can control in a world that feels out of control. If they’re good at school, then it becomes easy to find their identity in their grades because their family identity has been damaged. The desire to be in control is a coping mechanism that stems from the failure they feel from and in relationships.

It’s funny how our desire for control ends up revealing what we believe is most important, it shows us our idols, the things that enslave us. It’s exhausting to constantly judge ourselves against such impossible criteria, whatever they may be, because we place the weight of our worth upon ourselves and whether or not we measure up to the standards of the world.

And it always comes with a cost.

Marlin Harris served for three years as a campus ministry intern with Reformed University Fellowship at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.  He is now a student at Reformed Theological Seminary.


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