Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The illusion of control, and the illusion of non-control

Something I've been thinking about a lot lately is how control is an illusion.  We like to believe that we've got a handle on life, that if we work hard we'll succeed, and if we are careful nothing bad will happen.  People do a lot of dumb things to preserve that illusion, like obsessing over details or blaming other people for bad things that happen.

Of course we're not really that much in control.  Crap happens and sometimes it isn't anybody's fault.  Or it's someone's fault, but not yours, so that no matter how good or hardworking or careful you are, you wind up in trouble.  Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people.  Life isn't fair.

Simcha Fisher wrote a good article about this today.  So let's set it aside: control is an illusion.  Much of what happens in life, happens despite your plans and carefulness.

But I have been thinking as well that non-control is also an illusion, and one that's much more tempting to me.  I like to walk through life assuming things will just work out, or if they don't, I probably couldn't have made them work out anyway so it's not my fault.  I prefer to believe that the hour of my death is already somehow decided and doesn't rely on small decisions I make; that getting and keeping a good job is mostly a matter of luck and the economy and doesn't rely a whole lot on me being superlative.

Of course one ought to be responsible, in a general sense, but there's a certain basic level of responsibility that is all anybody could expect.  If you do your due diligence, if you watch your kids as well as most parents do and you work hard at your job and you look both ways before you cross the street .... you're responsible enough and anything bad that happens isn't your fault.

However, this too is an illusion.  Sometimes it's the germaphobe that avoids catching the plague.  Sometimes staying home instead of going out might save your life. Sometimes you forward-face your toddler at two because that is what everyone does and they break their neck in a crash.  Sure, you might not be blamed because everyone knows you did your basic diligence, but it will still be a reality that if you had been more careful, results would have been different.

And I know the illusion of non-control can be dangerous.  There was a time when I felt no sense of responsibility at all for how many kids I brought into the world because it was out of my hands.  It was wonderfully freeing, but was it responsible?  Maybe not.  Certainly there are cases where it would be terribly irresponsible to take this attitude -- if I had a serious illness and could die, if my children were all disabled and needed extra care.  I don't have a job, but if I did have one and was willing to work more-or-less hard and blame any layoffs on the economy -- well, sooner or later I might be jobless when I really needed to have a job!

However, giving up the illusion of non-control might be even more terrifying than giving up the illusion of control.  The latter means accepting that you could be perfect and crap could still happen to you.  The former means accepting that despite that, you still have to try to be perfect because if you don't, even more crap will happen to you and it will be all your fault.  Then you have to take both of these tough realities and work out a balance that you can live with, that will have you working hard at your job but still sleeping at night, looking both ways before you cross the street but not afraid to leave the house.  And you have to accept that the balance you worked out might not be the "right" balance, and in fact there's no way to know, but you still have to live with it.

Life is hard without these two comforting illusions.  But as they are illusions, and as you can't navigate the world in a moral way without reference to the truth, it's good to remember (at least once in awhile) that illusion is exactly what they are.

1 comment:

Andrea said...

I'd say the main control we do have that is not an illusion is what occurs in our minds and the decisions we make based on our mental process. Those decisions may not always be carried out in real life as we imagine, but the initial decisions are a reality that guides our lives and forms us.

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