Controlled from Within or Without?

Agency.  Power.  Self-efficacy.  All of these words have to do with what we believe that we are able to accomplish.  As a child, I inherited a dresser from my parents’ bedroom suite that had the following message applied in sticker-like fashion to the upper-right corner of its mirror: “Whatever the mind believes, it can achieve.”  From an early age, this truth was imprinted on my mind.  Even as a largely sheltered, occasionally overprotected child, I had my share of bumps and bruises as my “accidents of birth” (e.g., my gender, race, skin color) collided with the stereotypes and assumptions of my world in the South.  I’d always heard warnings of having to work “twice as hard to achieve half as much.”  I observed from the people in power at my school, at my church, and in my community that sexism was real.  I knew from my classroom experiences and the evening news that discrimination was real; I knew from my interactions with other blacks, young and old, that colorism was real.  For example, we as a community could be quick to describe, or even insult, another black person based on the nuanced gradients of skin color, facial features, and of course, hair texture.  (It seemed as though we never paused to think about what message we were sending to those of us not born with “good hair.”)  Society has continued to correlate negative outcomes with things that are black or dark (e.g., black ice, black humor), and if we’re not careful, we too can buy into making negative associations with all things black, including ourselves.  We can take on the “victim” role and explain away our lack of accomplishments on “the system,” “the Man,” our absent father, our last boyfriend, or any convenient scapegoat.  Psychologists describe this dynamic, one in which we utilize external factors to explain outcomes, as an external locus of control.  From this viewpoint, things are as they are in our lives because the power to change important factors is outside our control.  We failed in school because teachers didn’t like us.  We haven’t been promoted on our jobs because the supervisors have their “picks.”  We can’t eat with more healthy habits because fast food restaurants have taken over our neighborhood and the grocery stores have left.  Under this scheme, we are stuck in a web of diminishing opportunity and increasing negativity.  Life is half empty.

On the other hand, an internal locus of control represents our view that each individual, not external others, has the power to determine her destiny.  Internal factors such as faith, hard work, perseverance, and commitment are the ultimate determinants of the future from this perspective.  To be sure, those of us who embrace an external locus of control possess and use positive character traits, and those of us who endorse an internal locus of control have their share of external barriers (e.g., racism, sexism, classism, and other -isms of the world) that serve as significant impediments to their success.  On the balance, however, those who possess an internal locus of control are much more likely to achieve their goals.

If we take seriously God’s promises to us as God’s children (e.g., “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” I John 4:4), then we have to recognize the inevitability of our success, and to fully cooperate with it rather than resisting it.  In almost any human contest, there are obstacles that are encountered that must be overcome in order to win the prize.  For some of us, we may have the obstacle of physical, mental, and/or emotional disability.  For others, we start off in a seemingly compromised position because we were born into poverty or lack.  For still others, our family histories are full of dysfunction that both genetically and socially have placed us in a vulnerable position.  Those challenges may slow us temporarily, but they can’t stop us!  God gives each of us the wherewithal to overcome our challenges and setbacks, and to “press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13).  Sometimes we need grace, mercy, encouragement, or strength.  These contributions are important because they strengthen the mind and spirit to carry forward. And we know that once the mind is made up and the spirit has been renewed, nothing can stop us!  At other times, however, we need more practical helps, like financial assistance, or specific direction on our path, or connection into networks that can equip us with tangible and intangible resources.  God allows us, rather than forces us, to choose a path of righteousness.  As we embark on this path, let us ask for and seek out both natural and supernatural resources for the journey ahead.

 

À votre santé (“To your health”),

 

Dr. T

Tonya Armstrong

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