Are we ever really in control?
Updated: Mar 17, 2020
Amid the tsunami of panic surrounding COVID-19, I wondered: what is the nature of fear? Why are we so quick to assume the worst in any given situation? Why do we load up on toilet paper in the midst of a pandemic? Surprisingly, the answer came rather swiftly: when something unexpected happens, we are forced to face the fact that we are not in control, ever. To some, this realization is so panic-inducing, they will do anything to regain a sense of control, like stocking up on supplies as if Armageddon is around the corner or adopting a survivalist mentality: each man, woman and child for him or herself. I also realized as I pondered this question that, in the absence of an international crisis, we lash out in smaller ways whenever we feel a loss of control.
Usually, those closest to us will feel the brunt of our fear, expressed as anger, impatience, envy, jealousy, or even mild irritation. Whenever my carefully laid-out plans are even slightly affected by outside circumstances, I immediately succumb to annoyance, and if I'm driving, all out rage. (There's something about driving that brings out the worst in me.) The irony here is that, once we acknowledge we're never in control of anything outside of ourselves, it's rather freeing and quite a relief. In theory, it sounds so simple. In practice, this can be the most challenging thing we ever try to do.
Our entire social structure is based on control: time, schedules, deadlines, relationships: boss/employee, teacher/student, husband/wife (or partner/partner). There is always a sense that we need to be controlling something or someone other than ourselves when, in reality, all we can ever control is our reaction to events, circumstances and behaviours that surround us. We are, in essence, control freaks, so when something like COVID-19 comes around, we lose our shit, because we're faced with the very real and stark fact that there is no certainty. And lately, we seem to be obsessed with certainty.
This whole "Us vs. Them" rhetoric is based on the assumption that we are in possession of a "certainty" that others don't have. The deepening polarization of liberal vs conservative, right vs wrong, capitalism vs communism, democracy vs despotism is all about who's in control. Who has it, who wants it, and who wants to maintain it at all costs. But chasing control is basically running after an illusion: it doesn't exist. There will always be a rebel underground waiting to pounce, an unforeseen circumstance no one saw coming, a virus that doesn't care about borders. Chasing control is relegating ourselves to a life of turmoil and stress because nothing will ever be "just so"; we'll never find that perfect environment where everything happens the way we want it to and everyone behaves the way we want them to.
Instead, we must learn to let go. We're not the centre of the universe, and it's not about us. We're merely players in a much bigger production than we can ever imagine, and over which we have no control. It means that sometimes, dreams don't come true, things don't go as we planned, people disappoint us. What I've noticed, though, is that these crises, failures and disappointments usually lead us to places we'd never expected to be and to people we never thought we'd relate to but somehow, it all works out, and because of unexpected bumps in the road, we become who we are. We learn, we evolve (hopefully). If everything happened in an easy, linear fashion, how would we ever gain perspective on anything?
I know it sounds like some lame hippie saying but it's survived this long because there's some truth to it: go with the flow. Stop fighting reality. Stop trying to control everything. There is tremendous freedom in letting go and acknowledging that there may be some force greater than ourselves at work. Wouldn't it be a relief to just chill out for once? We don't need to react to every impulse, feeling or trigger we have - this is where our power resides: choosing to react when necessary, and in a manner that enhances our relationships, social structures and living environment.