What You Control, Controls You
This pandemic challenges the belief we ever had control in the first place.
Striving for control, when boiled down, is no more than a fear-based coping mechanism for the chaos or uncertainty of life. Humans are hardwired to seek safety, and we crave a sense of predictability. Apart from meeting our basic physical needs, Maslow argued in 1943 that humans have a fundamental need to feel safe. We don’t like getting caught off-guard, and we struggle with tolerating ambiguity. We want to live in an environment we can trust and depend on.
The illusion of control is that it allows us to believe we can anticipate, and thus prepare for, what happens next. It also feeds us the notion that we can influence the course of our lives to our own advantage. It’s a false narrative rooted largely in privilege and sheer luck, but it’s one that many of us cling to nonetheless.
Because controlling our reality leaves no room for error or spontaneity, no chance of being ill-prepared or caught off-guard. Further, as a Yale Researcher affirmed in a 1975 study “The Illusion of Control”, there is more motivation to control one’s environment if there are associated negative consequences with not having control. And so, the worse the possible outcome, the more one might feel compelled to exert agency over a situation.
For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the first times in their lives they feel a profound loss of control: over their jobs, their health, their environment, and the actions of other people. It’s also likely a first for our lifetime to witness an reality in which celebrities and commonfolk alike (aside from front-line workers) are forced to stay home, where money can’t entirely insulate anyone from this threat.
But what this pandemic really sheds light on is the fact that control was never fully ours in the first place. I’m not saying we had complete control and lost it; I’m suggesting we only believed we did, and that circumstance hadn’t proven us wrong yet. This pandemic may be the very first time that this illusion of having ultimate control over our life is shattered. And that’s a painful reality to acknowledge.
One twist of fate and our house of cards, that intricately-built foundation made up of the stories we tell ourselves, falls down.
If we thought we had control over how we do our job, we’ve likely never suffered a debilitating injury that left us unable to work. If we thought we had total agency over our health, we probably haven’t received a cancer diagnosis that blew our “healthy lifestyle” theory out of the water. If we thought we had power over our environment, we’ve never lived in a war-torn country, or grown up in poverty. If we’re surprised we can’t socialize with friends whenever we please, we’ve never tried to return to normal after experiencing deep, profound grief.
As I said, these beliefs are rooted in privilege, and sheer luck. Because one twist of fate and our house of cards, that intricately-built foundation made up of the stories we tell ourselves, falls down.
I’ll admit, I haven’t watched the inflammatory conspiracy videos that have periodically gone viral since stay-at-home orders began. And I don’t plan to consume that content, either. They efficiently feed into conspiracy theories suggesting this whole pandemic has been intricately orchestrated, and it implies that COVID-19 is catering to financial and political interests. At its best, it’s fear-mongering; at its worst, it’s perpetuating unsubstantiated medical claims that can get people killed.
I’m assuming at the heart of this argument is the desire to point the finger, to blame someone or something for this devastating virus, and to establish some sense of agency over the narrative.
I know that’s likely the intention of those consuming and spreading this misinformation, too. Pointing the finger is an easy way to discharge the discomfort of uncertainty. Because if it’s not someone else’s fault, it stands to reason that the narrative is undetermined, and many of us simply can’t tolerate the ambiguity of that. Blaming others is easy; the alternative requires hard work and for us to dismantle our entire belief system. Besides, without a hill to die on, a lot of people wouldn’t know how to live.
Now I can understand why someone would want to make sense of something that confounds us all, but I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that people would rather have the wrong explanation than no explanation. Personally, I’d prefer to admit I don’t have the answer than to be a harbinger of false truths.
I know that fear and uncertainty are common enemies. And I acknowledge that a popular avenue for appeasing anxiety is to create an explanation, to forge some sort of understanding over the situation, even one that’s misguided or overly subjective.
The irony of this is, of course, that when we take a fear-based approach, we inevitably create what we fear.
We seek certainty, but by placing the blame where none exists, we only cause more confusion and muddy the waters. We want someone to be held accountable, but we become the ones to blame for perpetuating ill-informed opinion pieces and adding more fear to an already saturated pile. We want to understand and explain this virus, but the information we’re sharing is likely unsubstantiated because the virus is novel, and we’re all still collectively learning about it. We tell ourselves we’ve already had the virus so we don’t have to worry about being at risk (you know, that flu we had last fall?), but of course, this ignorance puts us and everyone else at risk.
Maybe the only thing left to do is learn how to weather our uncertainty, and admit that not everything can or should be explained — instead of grasping at straws for a narrative that doesn’t exist.
Sometimes saying we don’t have the answer is the best answer of all.