Mariska van Dam - Foto Ramon Tjan
Mariska van Dam - Foto Ramon Tjan

Everything Under Control | Lecture en discussion with with philosopher Mariska van Dam, theologian Marc De Kesel and psychologist Daniela Becker

Video | Podcast| English review

Tuesday 26 September 2023 | Radboud Reflects and deBuren  Bekijk de aankondiging.

Review - Everything under control?

By Tanja Mourachova, student Reserch Master Philosophy| Photos by Berit Akse

On Tuesday evening at 20:01, we were seated in a filled theater room, eagerly awaiting the start of the talk. There was a slight delay due to lighting checks. "It would have been nice if we always had full control over the sound and lights," remarked Adriaan Duiveman. He was standing in for program leader Liesbeth Jansen, as she couldn't attend due to illness. Another uncontrollable event. We are often tempted to believe that having complete control would bring us happiness, Duiveman continued. But is this idea true? Are we not sacrificing spontaneity in the process? Is trying to control everything not making us more anxious?

Throughout the evening, the phenomenon of control was explored by writer and philosopher Mariska van Dam, social psychologist at Radboud University Daniela Becker and philosopher and theologian at Radboud University Marc De Kesel.

The snooze button

Mariska van Dam began her talk describing an experience we all know too well: waking up in the morning and hitting the snooze button. Hitting the button gives you the feeling of control, acting as a promise for future action. Even if you do nothing now, things in the future still will work out. Or so you think. By the 5th time you hit the snooze button you somehow trick yourself into feeling in control when reality is that you will need a teleporter to be on time at work.

In what other dimensions of our life do we hit the snooze button? Thinking you will stop smoking later, just in time to avoid illness? Or planning to stop climate change, but keep on consuming on a large scale now, because later we will fix it and everything will be alright? Planning an action is not the same as doing, emphasized van Dam. “To stop smoking, you need to stop smoking and to bring down the CO2 you need to bring down CO2, not subsidize it”.

Control freaks

After van Dam gave her talk, Duiveman sat down with all the speakers for a conversation. “We all have that friend who is a bit of a control freak. What is the reason that some people seem to want more control than others?,” he asked Daniela Becker, who conducts experimental studies about self-control. Becker answered that some personality types just have a bigger need for the feeling of control, but in some cases this need can become excessive. For example we know that eating disorders are linked to high levels of self-control. Not being able to let go or to have fun is another kind of self-control that is linked to compulsive disorders. Depression is also a form of not being able to let go, but of negative affect.

Lau ten Zeldam - Foto Berit Akse
Lau ten Zeldam - Foto Berit Akse

There is also good news, said Becker. Self-control and letting go are both skills that can be learned and they are not negatively correlated, as one might initially think. This means that it is possible to have good self-control, achieve your goals, be a good student and at the same time be able to let go at other moments and just be, relax and enjoy the moment.

Losing yourself

Another interesting perspective on control was then given by Marc De Kesel. The very concept of control stems from the notion that there is something that escapes our control, he explained. Our human nature is that we actually want to get to a place where we don’t need to have control anymore. It is a paradoxical realization, but we see it in our cultures that at the very center of our highly controlled societies we have this preoccupation with losing ourselves. We are addicted to drugs and pleasure, because we want to forget ourselves and get away from the world. The danger of our time, however, is that we extend ourselves into trying to control things that we can’t control. We are capitalizing on pleasure, buying and selling it. This is the paradox, because pleasure is precisely there where we don’t have control.

Finding balance

In response to De Kesel’s point, van Dam added one can lose oneself in controlled ways. For example by planning to go to a party on the weekend where you will drink your head off, before you go back to studying on Monday. Filling our calendar with future activities that warrant our career, health and fun, may take away some spontaneity, but is still helpful. This is why setting deadlines for climate goals is still a good idea.

Marc De Kesel - Foto Berit Akse
Marc De Kesel - Foto Berit Akse

Becker added that we know from research findings that some people drink alcohol to increase positive experience while others drink to shut off the thoughts in their heads. When people find it hard to let go of worries about, for example, tasks that still need to be done, they have a hard time to relax and unwind. Because of this, people can end up compensating their trouble with letting go by drinking alcohol.

Both Becker and Van Dam seem to believe we have the tools to control and to let go, but De Kesel seemed to keep suggesting that trying to control or to let go is missing the point. “We want to know what to do, and this is exactly what control is”, he said. Like poetry or drawing, you are approaching something that you can’t really touch or grasp.

Daniela Becker - Foto Berit Akse
Daniela Becker - Foto Berit Akse

In the middle of De Kesel’s sentence, suddenly the alarm clock, which had been standing in the middle of the stage from the very beginning, started to beep. This is when Duiveman jumped up from his seat and ended the evening by thanking the speakers and noting that everything went smoothly. He felt like he had been in control.

Lau ten Zeldam aan het tekenen - Foto Berit Akse
Lau ten Zeldam aan het tekenen - Foto Berit Akse


26 September 2023

How we would love to be in control of everything! Because life becomes a lot more pleasant, safe and manageable if only we were in control. Right? In an age of bicycle helmets, tracking apps and security cameras, we are increasingly able to exert control. But does that make us happy? Come hear philosopher Mariska van Dam, theologian Marc De Kesel and psychologist Daniela Becker explain why control does not always bring us what we hope for.

A pleasant feeling

Control gives a pleasant feeling, but it also has all kinds of disadvantages. For example, philosopher Mariska van Dam argues that control leads to the postponement of actions that are necessary, theologian Marc De Kesel analyzes that while control leads to freedom, it also leads to worry, and psychologist Daniela Becker argues that too much control interferes with our ability to enjoy ourselves.

We plan ourselves to death

We live in a time when we have elevated control to an important value. But we can also exaggerate the urge to control everything in life. Whether it's work, friends or leisure, we plan ourselves to the bone. As a result, all spontaneity disappears, and fear reigns supreme: because woe betide if something goes differently than planned. What is a good balance between controlling and letting go? How can we learn to allow the unpredictability of life a little more?

After a column by Mariska van Dam, she entered into discussion with Daniela Becker and Marc De Kesel. Program maker Liesbeth Jansen  was moderator.


About the speakers

Mariska van Dam is a writer, philosopher and neerlandica. She likes to think about time, history, democracy and politics. In 2022, she was a participant in the first edition of Nieuw Geluid at deBuren. She can regularly be found on stage performing cabaret, operetta or poetry.

As a theologian at Radboud University, Marc De Kesel researches mysticism and modernity. His books include Ik, God & mezelf. Mysticism as deconstruction and Sex in biopolitical times: art of living with Foucault and Lacan.

Daniela Becker is associate professor of Social and Cultural Psychology at Radboud University. She studies the experience and consequences of conflict in terms of self-control, motivation and decision making. In a recent study, she examined whether having fun is a problem or a solution.

Lau ten Zeldam draws, writes, is a socio-cultural worker in Brussels and worked for a long time as a worker in a glass studio. Their interest is in the dynamics of non-binary attention and the diversity born from it. Lau prefers to create in dialogue.

This is a program of Radboud Reflects and Flemish-Dutch house for culture and debate deBuren.

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Organizational unit
Radboud Reflects
Philosophy, Behaviour, Science