Robbie Young on the illusion of trying to maintain control and govern everything that happens to us

[New City Magazine – December 2019, page 20-21]

Our ancestors of thousands of years ago were wise enough to know that they couldn’t make things happen. The hunters who went out in the morning never knew if they would come back in the evening with food to feed their families. Perhaps they would find no prey; or the prey would escape; or one of their members might be killed during the hunt. If they were to be successful they had to have the gods on their side. But even here they couldn’t make the gods look upon them with favour. They could only offer up supplications. After that it was up to the gods to bless the hunt. For those of us who live surrounded by smart phones, computers, high-speed trains, micro-wave ovens, 5-star hotels, McDonalds, those days of the unpredictable hunt are long gone. We are convinced that we do not need assistance from beyond this world because we know how to make things happen. We know how to make cars, washing machines, hydro-electric power stations. We know how to make air-conditioners that will heat rooms in the winter and cool them in the summer. We know how to fly passengers from Buenos Aires to Bangkok and make sure their luggage awaits them on their arrival. We even know how to put a person on the moon. And if things are not going our way, Kanye West can give us the solution, “I ain’t play the hand I was dealt, I changed my cards.”

We have got so used to this that we become frustrated when we don’t manage to make things happen. I switch on the light but the room remains in the dark; I plan a holiday in the sun but it rains every day; I arrange a meeting with a client and she doesn’t show up; I buy an expensive TV, but it stops working after a week. In reality, it’s an illusion to think we can make things happen. In 1986, just over a minute after blast-off, the Challenger space shuttle disintegrated in mid-air with the tragic loss of the lives of all seven astronauts aboard. Everything had been calculated down to the finest detail, except the fact that extremely cold weather led to the malfunctioning of a seal in the joint of one of the solid rocket boosters. The builders of the Titanic never imagined it being sunk by hitting an iceberg. This is not to deny our capacity to be rigorous in eliminating every possible risk factor when we want to make something happen. But the rigour we practice can never be absolute. And even if it were, unpredictability is the very stuff of reality. Things happen. I may have a Swiss watch which keeps time as perfect as anyone could possibly want. But how could I predict that while on an exotic holiday a monkey would come in through an open window and steal it?

Why do we believe in the illusion? Perhaps it has something to do with our aversion to contemplating a world where uncertainty and unpredictability reign.

How could I cope with not knowing whether my million pounds in the bank today will still be there tomorrow? When I am focused on making my world be exactly as I want it to be, anything that disturbs it will always be unwanted. In other words, I can never really be at peace with a world where a nail on the road can puncture my tyre, or a flight can be cancelled because of bad weather.

But what if the world was on my side? What if unpredictability was a gift? What if chance events were governed by a mysterious law that always worked in my favour? Such a world might seem to be unimaginable. And yet, it’s the day-to-day experience of those who are linked by loving relationships. The very substance of love is its unpredictability, its complete resistance to any attempt to make it happen. Every chance event becomes an opportunity to find new ways for love to be expressed. I slip on a patch of ice and you take me to the hospital. Your flight is delayed and I wait an extra hour at the airport to pick you up. Our child is born with a disability and this doubles our love. This is far from a stoical acceptance of whatever life throws at me. In Paul McCartney’s song, the words ‘Let it be’ are the words of the love of a mother standing by her son in his hour of darkness.


[See the article in full PDF edition on pages 20-21]

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