Understanding and the illusion of control
Yonatan Zunger

I grew up during the sixties and seventies. It was a crazy time. We were all scared of the threat of nuclear annhilation. We were also being made scared of the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the anti-war protests, the student riots…

I have a cousin much older than myself whose younger siblings played with my sister and myself. She was in university when the Kent State Massacre happened. I was too young to understand that wasn’t her university. All I knew in my mind was that she was in danger. I was surprised how profoundly that affected me when much later I watched the movie Across The Universe. At the point in the story where they represented the massacre, I came to pieces and started bawling in the cinema.

As a child I felt a deep need to help make the world a better place. I thought hard about where I could do this most effectively.

Would I do this through politics? What we learned from John F Kennedy’s assasination is that no matter how good a leader is, if people are not ready for a better world, their efforts will largely fall to dust.

Would I do this through science? I was very interested in science. I still love documentaries that inspire a sense of wonder at our world and the universe. However, my family is made up of scientists and ambassadors. A person can be extremely intelligent and exceptionally foolish at the same time. I remember when Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling was at a party at my uncle’s house. Students fluttered around him as if he were Jesus. They took on board his theories about how vitamin C would save them from cancer. He joked about the “morbid emissions” from taking too much C. (The irony here is that my grandmother worked with the man who discovered vitamin C.) Pauling was a chemist not a nutritional scientist.

Scientists suggested the creation of the atomic bomb. They then did the work to make it a reality. This wasn’t like those scientists who invented DDT or the research team that synthesized the CFC producing Freon for refrigerators. Those people didn’t know what the results would be of their inventions. A bomb is meant for one thing: to kill people. Science can be used for good or ill. When intentions are good it can still be the source of serious destruction.

People think I’m crazy to this day for having chosen the arts as a way to create change. I’ve had other women thinking I’ve let down the team by not going into science or technology. However, I deeply believe that you create change by getting people to care, helping them to improve their values and to change their priorities. Then things like science and politics are more likely to be effective in genuinely creating a better world.

From my experience I believe you have missed the point Bob Laughlin was trying to communicate when he said, ““Understand! Of course scientists want to understand. It’s a way of creating an illusion of control.”

Dictators seek safety for themselves and their country by asserting absolute control. Certain landowners tried to secure their wealth by owning/controlling human beings and justifying their use of slavery by asserting on, among other things, the basis of evolution that people of African descent were somehow less human than their white owners. Men control women by devaluing their work and enforcing marriage contracts on them that make it difficult to escape the relationship. Both my grandmother and my uncle have alienated younger members of their families by their attempts to absolutely control their behaviour and their choices.

Relying on control does not make a life better. Relying on control is a good way to imprison yourself as well as everyone else. We all become caught up in desperate attempts to manipulate nature and other people, and it never quite works. You cannot control where, what time, and to whom you were born. Any number of things in your life were completely accidental and random. You have no way to avoid death and outside of suicide you have no way of determining your day of death.

We all only ever have partial control over our lives. But partial is not the same as either total control or no control at all. We have to have sufficient inner peace (sorry, this sounds a little spiritual but I’m not talking Yoga here) to allow a balance. I am very fond of Niebuhr’s Prayer, but I have my own version: May I find the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.

The world will change when like skilled tightrope walkers we are willing to balance on the edge of unknowing. This is made easier when out of kindness we do our best to provide safety nets to one another.

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