Illusions of Control


I saw an interesting quote today on npr.org:

Wilderness is a place, any place, where the illusion of control slips away.

As a kid perhaps 10 years old, I longed for what I perceived to be “wilderness”. It was just the woods down the road, but indeed the illusion of control slipped away while I was there. I was in something larger than myself and I intuitively understood this. Perhaps that’s why I went into the woods with a hatchet and a home-made bow and arrow. I wasn’t in control, but I thought I was prepared. I went to explore and build a wigwam, and protect myself against the animals that had moved out probably 100 years before. But when I finally put aside the tools and weapons in the middle of this real (yet small) old hardwood forest, I found peace. As a kid, I eventually sat in the woods and let go.

That’s where peace may be found. Sit in a forest and let go. Understand how small you are. Be with what is around you. Understand your place. It is Zen.

I dare say, that’s why some people find peace in the idea of god. God helps them let go of the illusion of control. But I see this as a Faustian bargain. Handing the reins over to a god may feel good in the short term, but ultimately it does not work. Pray all you want, but nature still takes its course. We may get cancer, we may grow old, but one way or another we will die. Christians urge acceptance, yet still they pray. There is so much mental discord in this.

My aunt died a few days ago, due to lung cancer. I remember my uncle smoking 30 years ago in that house. Wasn’t her choice, decades ago as a young wife, and it got her. Many prayers were said in the past few years on her behalf. But reality started long ago, and couldn’t be stopped.

She was one of the kindest relatives I have, and I love her and miss her, but I admit I didn’t pray. I don’t know if doctors might conceivably have fixed this (probably not, with current medicine against lung cancer) but prayer stood no chance.

Humans want to be in control. The old way was the medicine man. Now we have iPhones, iWatches, iWhatevers, and Androids. Phones and watches that keep you in contact with people, monitor your health, and notify you of events. Cars that drive you places semi-automatically. With this technology, we have a nanny ready to take care of us, help us, remind us of things, and connect us with others. We are insulated from reality, and with this, we feel in control. Or rather, we are conditioned to think we are in control. It’s a farce; we are slaves of the devices. We are slaves conditioned to not understand – or even see – the real world around us. We believe the devices open our view to the world, but they actually limit it.

As a cancer parent, it’s drilled into your head that you must be in control. Aaron is now immune-compromised, so if he has a slight blip of a fever, we’re supposed to be in the ER pronto. Be in control. Watch. It wears a parent down. It’s a death march.

Sometimes I don’t know if I’m taking my son’s brain cancer too hard, or too cavalier. He still lives as I write this. I’ve had plenty of family die in the past few years, due to accidents and cancer and old age. Aaron lives. Reality got them. And yet still I focus my hope on Aaron.

Aaron is just five years old. It seems this age should confer special treatment, no? And yet at his age, his mother and I talk with him about cancer and mortality. We tell him that his cancer is usually curable, and he will probably live to be an old man. But we don’t hide other cancer deaths from him. We talk openly in front of our boys about life and death. How many five year olds could tell you about all these terms?

  • death
  • brain cancer
  • medulo blastoma
  • port, port access, port de-access
  • blood levels
  • immuno-deficient
  • antibiotic
  • chemo-therapy
  • Zofran

My own five-year-old self’s childhood was so benign by comparison that it has almost completely slipped from my memory. Aaron’s memory may remain longer.

And yet still, I don’t think he has illusions of control. For a five-year-old, he understands the reality of things. He’s five, so of course he has occasional temper tantrums (although far, far less than just before we got the brain tumor out), but grounding our argument in reality will now quiet him. Refusing to eat dinner or take medicines have real consequences, that extend far beyond Mom and Dad’s control. Mom and Dad are not the ultimate arbiters. Aaron lives in reality. He must.

Perhaps that’s a fundamental part of a cancer kid’s life: The actual world extends well beyond Mom and Dad’s control. Biology trumps Mom, Dad, god, all of it.

Control is a dream.

As a kid in the woods, I found peace in letting go. These days, I’m not Buddhist (I specifically do not believe in their ideas of rebirth), but I think I see what they are saying in the larger sense. Something I found in my childhood extends to now.

My son is being pushed towards acceptance (or whatever means of coping), far faster than I was. I hope I can help him find a balance and understanding in all this.

March 12, 2015
937 words


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