Here in Boston we have suffered a difficult and seemingly endless winter. Frigidly cold temperatures and mountains of snow—over 100 inches in just the last 8 weeks alone! There’s been plenty of collateral damage for many people, in the form of lost work, lost school, lost income, the breakdown of the public transportation system and other infrastructure elements, increased costs for everything, especially snow removal, heat, and repairs, and more—all adding to the cumulative stress that comes with enduring such a long and bitter winter. In the midst of all this I had a quite unexpected experience: a close encounter of the black ice kind. And it gave me a very personal reminder of the false sense of control with which we navigate our lives.
Have you ever lost control? Black ice is a perfect example of what it feels like. Black ice is not actually black, it is transparent. You cannot see it. I was not a hundred yards from my own driveway when I suddenly had no control over the steering of my car. I instinctively tried to regain control, steering into the skid, but, in very short order, a matter of only seconds, I realized: I have no control. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. And it appeared that I was going to collide with something, the only question was how bad would it be. I was heading off the edge of the road into a stand of trees.
This is not a good feeling.
As it happened, I hit a good-sized boulder in advance of the trees, and my car ended up hung up atop a 4-foot high block of granite. Fortunately, this was a slow speed accident, and I climbed out without apparent injury, just a bit shaken, even though my car was “totaled”.
When I think about this event, I return again to the very few moments when I realized I had no control over my vehicle. This experience gave me an intimate opportunity to reflect upon our very human natures and how we delude ourselves into believing we have control in all aspects of our lives, when in fact we don’t.
Albert Einstein is quoted as having said, “Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” But, I can tell you, the 7 feet of snow outside my kitchen door seems quite real to me! As was the ice! So what is this talk about illusion, when we live in the physical reality we live in? What exactly was my black ice encounter trying to tell me about control? If reality is an illusion, can I at least control the illusion?
Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, has studied the illusion of control and mindfulness theory since the 1970s. It is human psychology to believe, to need to believe, that we can control outcomes. For example, the research shows that participants in a lottery experiment believed they had more control over the outcome if they chose their numbers rather than having them randomly assigned (when in fact the opposite is true statistically). Similarly, people believe they are less likely to get into a car accident if they are driving than if they’re riding in the passenger seat. In short, we believe we can control events even when such control is not possible or not real, and there is something about being human, being incarnate, having ego, that drives this need to believe we have control. It gives us a sense of security, even when it is a false sense.
The truth is we don’t have control over nearly as much as we think we do. And that is really okay. Although the need for control is a natural human egoic response, born out of our survival instinct and our well-developed fear mechanisms, the effort to maintain control is exhausting. There is great peace in the acceptance of what is, in feeling the moment, in taking time to just BE. And you are well equipped to do this as you develop a greater sense of trust in your self, in your own inner voice, and in the fundamentally benign nature of the universe. As you trust more, then you may give up preconceived attachments to outcomes you think you want, and relish being alive in the moment.
As I think back over my black ice moments, I have a vivid recall and feeling sense of my response and its sequence: once I definitively concluded that I had no control and that I could not regain control, I simply let go of trying to control the outcome—because I had to–and accepted that it would unfold in whatever way it would. And in that split second of realization, there was a certain release, a quiet trust and acceptance that came with an unexpected sense of freedom. It was a gift.