Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The illusion of control

"I was never gonna get off that island. I was gonna die there, totally alone. I was gonna get sick, or get injured or something. The only choice I had, the only thing I could control was when, and how, and where it was going to happen."--Tom Hanks (as Chuck Noland), Castaway

Interesting, isn't it? Chuck Noland begins Castaway with the illusion of control--that the dates and times in his appointment book (for example) "matter." He is subsequently disabused of this fantasy when he becomes marooned on a desert island and realizes all his trivial concerns were just that.

And yet. When Noland finally returns to civilization, he immediately forgets the lesson he just learned! Namely, how and when we die is the only thing any of us ever controls. (And honestly, even this is a stretch. First, there is the non-trivial issue of whether we even have free will--more on this in a future post--and second, unless we immediately exercise this control we are ceding it to factors of chance. We can say with confidence, for example, that a small number of young, healthy people will die tomorrow from heart attacks, traffic accidents, etc.)

The illusion of control we feel is extraordinarily powerful, seductive, and constantly reinforced by deep-seated genetic and cultural forces. It is, nonetheless, just an illusion. Beyond losing our life, any of us could lose our sight, get paralyzed...or suffer an accident that completely changes our personality (see, for example, the case of Phineas Gage). Still, we cling to this illusion as if our very existence depends on it, never grasping the truth that our lack of control is incredibly liberating--a wonderful blessing that frees us from the scourges of worry and regret. Each of us will die someday, and the entity we think of as "I" will cease to exist.

Sadly, for most people this is a leap too far, and thus the vast majority of us remain marooned on our own private islands, futilely scrawling "HELP" in a quixotic quest for rescue.

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