My trip to my childhood home of Erie, Pennsylvania, to spend the Christmas holiday with relatives has been an interesting one. As is the new standard in my life, making plans was only moderately successful. So far, the only thing that has gone according to plan since I left home is the air travel, and that’s only half over so anything is possible. As I sit here in Starbucks – one of the few open businesses after a record-making dump of over 50 inches of snow in 48 hours – I can’t help but wonder if the snowfall actually will stop later today as predicted. Then, too, what does it matter? Clearly, I’m in control of nothing. As my cousin jokingly said, it may stop snowing just in time for them to open the airport for my flight out on Friday. Most of the things I had hoped to do while here will not happen. The snow will stop or it won’t. The plane will fly or it won’t. It’s not up to me. I have no influence either way. It’s that simple, and that frustrating.
What is it about us humans and the ever-illusive ‘control’? I didn’t plan to write two blog posts in a row on the topic, but here we are. I know I am not alone in my consideration of the subject. Control is one of the great human paradoxes, right up there with fear of our inevitable death which, come to think of it, is really a control issue, too. Weather and death have a way of making blatant the limits of our control. A blizzard is like the earth laughing at us puny humans with our grandiose delusions that we possess any real power at all.
Perhaps because of our self-awareness and the idea of free will, we have great difficulty conceiving of our lack of control. Rather than face the terrifying truth of our powerlessness, we invent gods and other imaginary forces, faulting their whim and will for our circumstances. We blame others for the conditions we encounter despite knowing that if we have no control then, surely, neither do they. We blame our parents for our poor decision-making, our teachers for our poor grasp of mathematics, and our mates for our hurt feelings. We refuse to embrace our shared fragility as human beings and display compassion, perhaps because it exposes our own vulnerability, which scares us. Instead, we pass judgment upon one another and seek solace in feeling superior. We take no responsibility for our lot but insist that someone, something, must be to blame. The truth, of course, is that the best laid plans are not guaranteed. But we simply can’t accept that randomness, so we grasp for any measure of power from which we might wrest the tiniest bit of influence over ourselves, over others, over our circumstances. We hurt ourselves and each other fighting a futile battle against the truth that we are not driving, we are just along for the ride. This is the paradox. Control is an illusion, yet we crave it.
As I sit here on this third day of blizzard out of the five days I will spend in my hometown, I can’t help but laugh a little. The best any of us can do is try to prepare for the parts of life that are knowable, to hedge our bets, to apply our experiences, to make educated guesses. I know that airlines do their best to stick to their schedules because that’s how they stay in business, so it was reasonable to take a chance on purchasing plane tickets. I know that it’s December and, in the Great Lakes region, that means snow, so it was reasonable to wear my waterproof hiking boots, winter coat, and gloves. My other plans included visits to cemeteries as part of my genealogical research project, meeting a childhood friend for coffee, and a possible trip to Niagara Falls to meet up with a Canadian friend, none of which are possible due to four-plus feet of snow and other circumstances that are so clearly beyond my control.
The things that were most likely to happen did – I got on a plane and I arrived at my destination and I spent Christmas with some of my relatives. There’s a very good chance that I will get on a plane Friday and be transported home without incident. Roughly 50% of my plans were realized. That’s not too shabby given my complete and utter lack of control. Faced with all this in-your-face helplessness, I’m pretty pleased that I managed to be kind to others and generally go with the flow. I had a minor freak out over running out of gluten-free pizzelles, nearly going all pity-party about how folks needed to leave some for me since I was not able to eat cake. But I regained my composure before it got ugly. It wasn’t about the cookies, of course. It is never about the cookies.
I backed my rental car into the spot it is occupying in the snow-covered parking lot here at the Starbucks. There are no guarantees that I won’t get stuck, but the odds are pretty good that, between the vehicle’s all-wheel drive and my planning, I will drive right out and be on my way. Backing in has the added benefit of affording us a better view of what lies ahead. A clear view of one’s immediate options is a pretty powerful position, and perhaps the only measure of control available to us puny humans.