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  • Dan Connors

Who is in control? How about nobody?

"No one is in control. No one is pulling the strings."- character GH Scott in the book/movie Leave the World Behind.

When I was a small boy, I figured that grown-ups had everything figured out. There was a system- economic, political, and scientific that kept things relatively predictable and rational. As I've grown older, that comforting idea has given way to reality. No one- not the president, pope, governor, or CEOs sees the big picture or understands it. Our world has gotten bigger and more complex with every passing year, and our institutions are struggling to keep up with it. While it's comforting to assume things are under control, the reality appears to be that those with all the answers are either lying or waiting for imposter syndrome to expose them and their ignorance.

I was struck by this uncomfortable idea while watching the riveting Netflix movie, Leave the World Behind, where a mysterious attack wipes out power, the internet, and gradually much of civilization. No one every finds out who is behind the attacks, and all of the usual authorities turn out to be useless, while information on the causes of the attack is spotty and mostly wrong. It reminded me of the chaos that went on during the Covid-19 epidemic, where we all felt helpless as a mysterious illness threatened everyone. Our president tried desperately to downplay the danger, while later a published interview revealed that he knew damned well how it was transmitted and how dangerous it could be. Most leaders look out for themselves first, and the rest of us are way down on the priority list.

As the 21st century unfolds, it appears more and more that the comforting controls that we thought we had aren't as reliable as we thought. That's why conspiracy theories are on the rise. Conspiracy theories assume a huge cabal of corrupt characters is secretly in control and behind everything that happens. In a warped way, a conspiracy can be comforting- because it assumes control is possible. Conspiracies give us something or someone to blame, and it provides some hope that some day these bad guys will be defeated and good guys can take over and restore control.

Our minds can't process the thought of bad things happening at random. There always has to be a reason to put us at ease, even if that reason is even more disturbing. Proportionality bias demands that bad events must have equally bad causes. It's disturbing to think that a random teenager could shoot up an elementary school, but in a sick way it's more comforting to see a government plot with fake actors. The reality that sometimes life is unfair, random, and beyond our control is hard to rationalize in our minds that crave predictability. To avoid these feelings of helplessness, we make up meaning where there is none. It's so much easier to look for a scapegoat or a charismatic leader than to deal with it.

As an American, I've often wondered about the four-year insanity that accompanies our presidential elections. People place an enormous amount of energy and money into a contest that for many feels existential. Having the right president makes us feel like things are under control. Having the wrong one threatens our safety and identity. But the more elections I have lived through the more I've realized that the President of the US doesn't actually have that much power over things. They don't control the economy, though people think they do, and much of what happens in government is determined by events outside of their control. And thanks to the Supreme Court and an often divided congress, the President has much less power to get things done than people assume.

Mind you, the wrong president at the wrong time can lead to catastrophe, as we almost learned during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But for the most part, presidents are creatures of politics and money, and their decisions are guided by practical concerns, not necessarily high-minded ideals. And that goes for most politicians as well- from governors to senators to state representatives. By voting for them we get the illusion of some kind of control, but most of them are almost impossible to reach or influence unless you are a wealthy lobbyist.

The same can be said of billionaires, who call most of the shots. These people control their little corners of wealth and power, but they are hopelessly out of touch with reality, hiding themselves in velvet castles with the mistaken impression that their money will protect them from the consequences of poor decisions. If you are reading this, you probably have a more realistic notion of how the world works than the average billionaire. In the movie referenced above, all the billionaires can hope for is a little warning before the shit hits the fan.

Celebrities give us somebody to look up to in times of trouble, but most of them are just as clueless as the rest of us. The media used to be more reliable in those situations, but now that they are owned by large corporations, their motivations are to feed us what we want to hear, not what we need to hear. And social media? Can anybody look to social media with a straight face and feel like it would be a calming, helpful resource in a storm? Their algorithm-driven outrage machines are the source of much of our chaos and disinformation today.

That just leaves us with the concept of God. Is a supreme being truly in control of all this? And if so, why would He allow so much violence and suffering without doing something about it? It's not a comforting thought to think that an all-knowing, all-powerful God is somehow in control of all this. In that case our only option is to get on God's good side and try to figure out His plans.

But not everyone believes in the kind of God that controls things from the top down. Some of us think God is more of a spiritual energy that works from the bottom up. If God is more like a Holy Spirit, there is no need for anyone to be in control. The quest for power and control is inevitably corrupting, so we need to avoid those who want to dominate us and look for the helpers instead.

In natural disasters, researches have discovered that altruistic behavior and kindness actually increases. People see needs and they rush to fill them. If there was a disaster like that in Leave the World Behind, I would hope that people would band together to figure things out rather than turn on each other or wait for some edict from above. We are here to love and to serve, and not to accumulate more wealth and more control. We need to hold those who desire control accountable, and look for the wisest leaders, not the loudest or richest.

As my favorite line from any book or musical concludes Les Miserables:

"To love another person is to see the face of God."

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