The Illusion of Control
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” — Helen Keller
As a kid in the mid 1980s I read dozens of Choose Your Own Adventure books, and their British equivalent, the Fighting Fantasy series. They were written in the second person, making you the reader the protagonist. At the end of each mini chapter you had to select between several courses of action and then go to a specified, non-sequential page number to find out the consequences. Some choices led to advantageous outcomes and more adventure, but most, it seemed at the time, led to death by an array of fiendishly inventive means. The CYOA series all started with the inscription, “Remember, you cannot go back! Think carefully before you make a move! One mistake can be your last … or it may lead to fame and fortune. Good luck!”.
You may scoff, but I believe those stories in that format contained valuable life lessons for my impressionable, pre-adolescent brain. For one thing, because you knew that you could cheat by going back and remaking your decision, no decision was truly irrevocable. In this way the books lowered my sensitivity to risks, because you could always do a re-do if things went tits up and you ended up being dismembered by mutant cannibals, or some such less than optimal outcome. You may argue that ‘pause – rewind’ is not an option in real life. But then I’d argue that the chances of cannibal dismemberment are statistically overrepresented in those books.
Okay, in real life you can’t return through the space-time wormhole and put back the pirate booty where you found it before all hell broke loose. But, unless you’ve chosen to do something horrifically and flagrantly irresponsible (I’m looking at you, Brexit voters), you will probably live to fight another day and be all the wiser for it. I’m assuming a modicum of competence and good judgement here. In a similar way, a friend of mine who is a stonemason, when faced with a seemingly intractable job, simply said, “what man has made, man can unmake”. Essentially it speaks of confidence in one’s own resourcefulness and adaptability. It’s a liberating idea because it frees you to make choices without feeling like its always life or death. It’s also a bulwark against hopelessness and despair in the face of difficult odds. Take courage! And get to work!
The writers of those books knew of course that readers would ‘cheat’. They sometimes sent you into infinite plot loops that you could only break out of by going against the flow. Other times, the desirable ending was effectively ‘islanded’, meaning it could only be reached by cheating or by accidentally turning to that page, whereupon you were congratulated for showing initiative. Really, the writers were recognising that sometimes a new approach is required to solve a problem (don’t worry, I won’t say anything clichéd about thinking outside boxes, you can unclench your buttocks now). Sometimes the only thing that’s stopping you changing the rules of the game is that you’ve assumed you couldn’t. Double, triple-check your assumptions. They’re your main limitations.
One more life lesson from the CYOA format is perhaps even more profound, and might have been unintentional. I mentioned already how so many of the possible story endings were ‘death by [insert fantastically improbable event]’. You’d think the attentive reader might have the wit to avoid a booby-trapped drawbridge or avert the robot-insect uprising. But there was seldom any logical connection between the quality of your decision and the result. The choices on offer were all equally innocuous looking, there was no clue in the question. The way things turned out was always a surprise (if you hadn’t cheated by skim-reading the book first. Come on… It’s a basic study skill). Windfalls or pitfalls were as good as the throw of a dice (in fact the Fighting Fantasy series did use dice to make the role of chance more explicit).
Now I think of it, there ought to have been a class-action lawsuit against the publishers of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure‘ under the trade descriptions act. You didn’t choose your own adventure at all. You selected from a bounded set of predefined, discrete choices and then had to suck up whatever adventure the authors had written. But perhaps there wasn’t a lawsuit because we the readers were so grateful to learn in a safe and painless way one of the most important lessons in life: that the pretence of control is an illusion. Think carefully! Choose wisely! As if it made a blind bit of difference. We strut around like we’ve got a handle on things, that we’re prepared for any eventuality, that we have planned for a secure future. But in truth, our constructed security is a thin, brittle veneer that merely obscures the powerful currents of nature.
I’m often asked ‘what will I do after my trip?’ in a way that suggests that the asker thinks I should be more worried about it than I am. Someone said recently to me ‘Well you’re not an old man, but you’re not exactly a young man either. Are you not concerned for your future?’. To which I answered, without reservation, ‘no’. No more than if I’d spent the last five years storing up acorns for the winter of my decrepitude like a good little squirrel. Assets are ephemeral, companies fail, mortgages get foreclosed, earthquakes level mountains, illness and death can strike without warning. For me, for now, the sensible response to that level of uncertainty is not to hoard up wealth and buy in to the illusion of being in control, but rather to cultivate skills and attitudes that mean I’ll be okay with whatever is thrown my way.
9 March 2020 @ 09:02
Awesome- I love this post!
10 March 2020 @ 00:18
Thanks, Debbie! It was going to be the intro to my next travel story, but then I thought it too long for that so put it here.
8 March 2020 @ 16:01
Here here . Now let me check how our shares are doing . Oh crap ….. oh well . Time for another ride out .
8 March 2020 @ 22:22
I like your thinking, Mark! We all need money and things. I’m just trying to accept that those things, like health and life itself, are not ours to keep. Be grateful while it lasts, and be ready to switch tack if circumstances change.