The Challenge of Partial Control

When I was 16, I accepted I would die.

It wasn’t hard to do—I was about to die! What point would there be in not accepting it?

Spoiler: I didn’t die. But at that moment, I thought I was about to die. I was jumping off a cliff into some water, with friends, on a volunteer trip in Kenya, and on this particular jump I did some sort of flip and thought I hadn’t cleared the part of the cliff below my jump spot that stuck out, and I saw the rock coming towards me and thought

“This is it. I’m going to smash my face into this rock, and then die of that impact, blood loss, or drowning.”

We were hours’ bumpy drive from anything remotely resembling a hospital.

Moments later, a splash—

—oh.

an photo of me floating in muddy water, on the day of this story

I spent a few minutes, shaken, sitting on the bank and appreciating my life.

Years later, I noticed that that acceptance of death wasn’t persistent. It was a kind of short-issue visa, and because it was issued last-minute it also expired pretty quickly.

And over the last few years I’ve noticed I have many layers of complexities in my relationship to death.

But in order to talk about those, I want to talk about something else that happened in Kenya. On the last day of our trip, which happened to be my 17th birthday, we were driving back south to Nairobi from this tiny town just north of the equator—basically a whole day’s drive, and as I said—bumpy.

And I had managed to get some sort of food poisoning that morning.

We had to stop the 20-person bus every 30-60 minutes for me to get out and hurl. But in the meantime, I was singing songs with everybody else, and having a grand time. One of the leaders of the trip commented that I was the happiest sick person he’d ever seen. (I think this would have actually been a year before the time I caught myself whistling!)

There was clearly nothing to be gained by being grumpy about being sick, so I enjoyed myself!

Something granted me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and the courage to change the things I can.

Nobody told me what to do about the things that are a bit of both.

And when death isn’t visibly hurtling towards me like a cliff face, it seems a lot more evitable.

We live in a weird time. At any point prior to roughly now, an adult human being could be basically certain of two things: in 100 years, I will be dead, and lots of other people will be alive.

At present, both of these futures are plausible:

That I and everyone I know will be dead in 10 years.

That I and many people I know will be hanging out on Mars in 1000 years.

I’m not saying either of those scenarios is likely, but I’m also not saying either is unlikely. Any attempt to put probabilities on them immediately runs up against layers of uncertainty and model-uncertainty and meta-model-uncertainty.

Besides, probabilities are mostly good for betting, and unfortunately if you bet humanity will be destroyed and win the bet, there’s nobody to pay out. And meanwhile in the ultra post-scarcity scenario, who cares?

(These arguments mostly hold in more-probable less-extreme scenarios too—even if both me and the person I made the bet with are among the 30% that survives some global catastrophe, it may be hard to find them at that point, even if they did have resources with which to pay me. And in the only-somewhat-post-scarcity scenario, it still doesn’t seem that important)

And yet I need to make choices about how to live my life.

Many wise things have been said, historically, about death. Much of that wisdom continues to be wise, as far as I can tell, but has also long felt incomplete, because it tends to emphasize the inevitability of death.

I already know how to accept the inevitable and I have found the world remarkably lacking in inevitables.

Jem Bendell wrote a paper about how we face inevitable near-term collapse from climate change. Paradoxically, I think that’s actually wishful thinking. It would be nice to be able to relax into the comfort of knowing that something like that is inevitable. It would make accepting it easier. It’s harder to accept that we live in an era of “perhaps-inevitable collapse“, as Daniel Thorson so clearly put it in one episode of Emerge.

I wasn’t originally intending this piece of writing to talk about global stuff.

I came here to talk about how I can accept pretty readily that something is lost forever if I know what happened to it, but anxiously search for hours in absurd places if I still think there’s some chance I might find it.

I came here to talk about how while I can accept that I just need to wait until I recover from the flu, when overheated I’ve tended to get panicky and/or whiny.

Moreover, I came here to talk about how hard I sometimes find it when someone I’m interacting with is interacting with me in a way that I don’t like.

Because that’s both something I can change and something I cannot.

I want to accept the reality of what it is they’re doing, and the underlying reasons (whether I understand those reasons or not, and whether they understand them or not) …without throwing up my hands and saying “there’s nothing I can do about this”.

I want to honor my own needs & desires, without (subtly or overtly) attempting to control people.

David Chapman writes about the fantasy of control. The fantasy is of complete control. It’s seductive, and also impossible. The world is slippery and has too many fiddlybits—not to mention other systems with their own agendas. Turns out this is the case even if you’re “just” trying to control yourself.

I’ve been trying to take in that insight from Chapman for over 3 years, and recently finally something deeper has clicked, and I’ve come to understand not just more about how to relate to the world in a more fluid way, but also why it was so goddamn hard in the first place.

The something deeper was that I found a map for these two modes of thinking, that someone developed over decades of independent research into the question: why do not just humans but almost all vertebrates have two brain hemispheres?

(This topic became unfashionable after the original attempts to understand brain lateralization in humans were much-hyped and very misleading, hence there haven’t been many attempts to seriously think about it, and most people are left with a kind of implicit model of “it’s not really that important”. If you think about it for even a few seconds, obviously the brain’s structure is important to anyone who cares about high-quality reasoning, metacognition, or introspection.)

And that map has allowed me to locate myself and realize when I was trying to deploy my left hemisphere into a situation for which my right hemisphere was better suited. (In principle, the reverse could also occur, but like almost all modern westerners, I’ve developed an overemphasis on my left hemisphere.) The left hemisphere orients towards certainty, and controlling the world, so if you’re in a situation that has ambiguity, nebulosity, or lots of unknown unknowns (which includes basically any situation that involves humans) you’ll have a better time if the right hemisphere is more in charge.

There’s a separate question of how to achieve shifting the locus of self & agency from the left to right hemisphere, and I’ve tweeted about this question and speculated at some answers. It also turns out that some of my old writing can be interpreted as an exploration of this question, such as this one on proactively learning to think about what I think with.

I can and will say much more about brain hemispheres, but for now if you have more appetite to check it out I highly recommend this 44-minute podcast interview.

This has been a very meandering ride. The central takeaway of this post was intended to be essentially just this: that I have found it to be enormously more challenging to experience acceptance in situations when I have partial control, compared to ones in which I have no control (or (a workable illusion of) complete control). I’ve even recognized my experiences of regret as being primarily about being motivated towards trying to control who gets blamed (something I have partial control of) rather than actually trying to change the past.

I wrote this post partially as a way to share a bit more about my personal experience living my life and making sense of the world, and also because my guess that many other people resonate with this, and I figured that recognizing it is a helpful step towards learning a new pattern.

I don’t know what the step after that is. For some people, it might be reading McGilchrist’s work. For others, perhaps it’s reading David Chapman’s online book Meaningness! There’s a lot of resonance between the two perspectives. Or maybe you just want to pay attention to your experience over the coming days and see what you notice that feels relevant.

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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