When the illusion of control fades

I’m reading ‘Wish You Were Here’ by Jodi Picoult and, as usual, her words do more than carry a story forward. She has a knack for getting to the big issues in your life, the ones you’re too busy to think about because buying food, doing laundry, fueling the car, going to the dump, cooking food, washing dishes, cleaning the house and paying bills take up all your time.

In this book, the heroine, Diana, is a twenty-nine-year-old woman from New York City who has always had a plan for her life and who has always kept her life on track. Then the Corona is virus hits and she finds herself stranded on an island on the other side of the world with no contact with the outside world and unable to speak the local language.

In other hands, this would be a RomCom setup – career woman goes through trauma, reassess her life and falls for local guy who is in touch with nature and his own masculinity and helps her become the woman she’s never realised she wanted to be.

In Jodi Picoult’s book, all of that is just a way of making you feel comfortable enough to float on the surface of the story and relax, like a tourist on an inflatable. That way you don’t notice until it’s too late that you’ve left the shallows behind.

Today I reached a point where I understood two things. The first was that the Coronavirus is not just an interruption of Diana’s life, an interlude that she has to live through before she can continue on her chosen path. It’s a fundamental change in circumstances that wipes out earlier choices and removes the illusion of control. The second was that, although I’m not alone on an island on the other side of the world from the person I love, the Coronavirus has had < similar impact on me as it has on Diane.

The innocuous piece of text that got me thinking about this came from Diane’s conversation with a local teenage girl who desperately wants to leave the island behind so that she can move forward with her life but who but can’t see how to make it happen. As Diana reflects that she can cope with being trapped on the island because she knows it’s temporary, she realises:

There is a profound difference between knowing your situation is temporary and not knowing what’s coming next. It’s all about control. Or, at least, the illusion of it

‘Wish You Were Here’ Jodi Picoult Hodder & Stoughton 2021.

That tipped me off my inflatable and made me think about the depths I now have to swim in.

I’m coming up on sixty-five. With a bit of luck, I have ten more years of active life. I’m fortunate enough to be married to a woman I love and with whom I want to spend those years. I’m financially secure and have few commitments. Way back in 2019, in the pre-Covidvirus era, when I was only sixty-two, I saw a future where my wife and I had successfully established ourselves in the UK after a long absence, had stabilised our affairs and had set about spending a few months each year travelling around Europe. It wasn’t a detailed plan. There was no schedule or where to go or when, just a reasonable expectation of a pleasant future.

I don’t have that expectation anymore. The Covidvirus, the insanity of Brexit and the slow slide of my country towards an authoritarian state that makes war or the poor and the old and the sick and the different and which I can’t do anything about, has shown me that I’m not in control and that I never was.

If my life was running along a track, it wasn’t really a track of my making. At any point, a virus, an accident, a shift in the political view of normal, could push a lever that re-routed the tracks my life runs on to point in a different direction.

Now that I don’t have one, it’s clear to me how much my picture of the future, shaped the way I ,experience the present. It wasn’t that I expected my future to be exactly the way I imagined it. It was simply that my imagined future gave my present a context that made it make sense. My imagined future gave me the illusion of control.

I can see that things are not going to get back to normal. That the next five years will continue to be reshaped by things I can’t control and which wash away my plans and mock my assumptions.

Of course, this is made worse because I keep hearing Andrew Marvell saying,

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;

‘To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell

Ok, Marvell was using it as a chat-up line but the image still stands. In my selfish way, I want to be able to envision the last decade or so of my life as something worth having.

So, what’s to be done?

I think the first thing is to accept that the future I thought we had is gone and isn’t coming back. The second is to stop fighting to control all the things that affect me but that I can’t affect. The third is to focus down on what I can have that I also want and to get all I can from them.

If I can’t maintain the illusion of control, then I need to replace it with something else that gives me a context to act it. If, up to now, I’ve imagined myself picking a route and powering along it, like an aeroplane, I now need to think of myself as being in a glider, trying to find the thermals that will keep me aloft. Being more concerned with the view than the destination and trying to enjoy the movement more because I know that sometime soon, I’m going to have to land.

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