We Only Think We’re in Control

we only think we are in control

By Troy Headrick

I want to thank my parents and grandparents for bringing me up the way they did.  The lessons they taught and the skills they instilled are serving me well at this challenging time.  In fact, they have always served me well.

Until the age of eight, I was an only child.  I spent my formative years living in a rural setting, without neighbors or siblings.  I lived in a small world peopled by a handful of adults.  Because of this fact, I sometimes jokingly tell colleagues, when we’re talking about working from home, that I’m pretty good at social distancing because I’ve been doing it my whole life.  Being isolated as a youngster, and having to find ways to keep myself entertained, promoted self-sufficiency and a penchant for engaging in solitary, creative pursuits.  Thus, I learned, early on, that there is a big difference between aloneness and loneliness.  To this very day, I can honestly say that I cherish alone time and can’t remember the last time I felt lonely.

Because my parents’ marriage was very unstable, I spent my childhood living with my maternal grandparents.  My grandfather was a rancher and my grandmother, a multi-talented wife of such a man.  Thus, I grew up in pastures, on horseback, milking cows, feeding livestock, and learning about the wonders of the natural world.

I observed my grandfather very carefully when he took me outside to help him around the ranch.  What I saw was a man who understood how connected we humans are to nature.  When there was a drought, the grass would die and there’d be nothing for his animals to graze.  When there was too much rain, the creek we lived on would rise, flood, and cause problems.  He taught me, in his own quiet way, how important it is to adapt to the challenges that come when nature expresses itself in ways that aren’t necessarily helpful.  He understood that nature was in charge and that he had to learn to adapt to its whims (and not the other way around).

Today, many people in many places (especially in America) have forgotten that we are biological beings that reside in nature and are subject to its preeminent laws.  They feel no connection to the natural world and have no sense of its power.  For those who carry such a disconnect to the extreme, it’s easy to think that human beings are in charge and that the world (and everything in it) was made to be “settled” and exploited.  Some in this camp see nature as a kind of playground.  In such people’s minds, there’s the human world and there’s “out there.”  Out there is wild and unruly and lacks meaning and purpose until it becomes civilized.  This sort of thinking easily forgets that humans can’t live if they make nature unlivable.

People who think in these ways find it easy to dismiss the coronavirus as an abstraction—or as “hoax”—that has nothing to do with them.  They have forgotten that their bodies are made of flesh and blood and that viruses, like human beings, are part of nature and express themselves in powerful ways.  It is no coincidence that the sort of mind that could so casually dismiss an all-powerful virus as an irrelevance would also see global climate change as no big deal.

Humans can deceive themselves into thinking that they are in charge for only so long.  Then nature reminds us, in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways, how misguided such thinking is.  Up until a few months ago, we humans would have never imagined that our entire way of being could be changed by something that is invisible to the naked eye.  Yet, here we are, being reminded, once again—we are very slow learners—that we aren’t really in complete control after all.

A number of writers, include Eugene Robinson, one of my favorite opinion columnists, have written about how we humans are going to have to learn to coexist with this virus—this force of nature.

I would agree with Eugene, and my grandfather would have too.

I look forward to seeing what you have to say on all this.

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.

44 thoughts on “We Only Think We’re in Control

  1. We’ve been here before. Everybody knows about the 1918 “flu outbreak. Not so many remembers the 1957 flu outbreak that killed millions worldwide. It has happened before, it will happen again and we will get back up and move on.

    1. The old saying “If we don’t remember history we are doomed to repeat it” comes to mind. Unfortunately, I don’t recall a time when anti-intellectualism had such a strong hold of so many minds. Has it always been this way? What is your opinion? It sometimes seems we’ve taken a step backwards and have entered a new Age of Superstition. Thanks so much for your comment. (By the way, I really am curious to hear your opinion on this.)

      1. Back in the 60’s scientist and author Isaac Azimov bemoaned the “cult of ignorance” ta wa dragging the country down. Nothing new here. What I think of as new is the high profile of the conflict today.

        I thnk there’s always been a strong udercurrent of anti-intellectualism in the US. It comes from not trusting elites and intellectuals are a kind of self selected elite. We’ve always thought of ourselves as a meritocracy and not a technocracy, although in reality we’ve have been populist in some degree in every election we’ve ever had.

        Quite frankly, many intellectuals isolate themselves from the common person. They don’t have a clue what the average life is life. This leads to polarization. And an attitude that people who disagree are “deplorable” rather than them having different values.

        Take the anti vaxxers today. I had a friend who was one of the last people to catch polio in the 50s. His father didn’t believe in vaccinations. Very sad for him as he caught polio, became a quadraplegic and died in middle age of post polio syndrome. But you see, there have always been anitivaxxers.. They were just able to fly under the radar because nobody thought it was reasonable to chase these people down and force them to change their ways.

        Today there are plenty of people who want to do just that and then the antivaxxers react. That raises the profile and gives an illusion that something has increased when in reality it hasn’t.

        The advent of cultural bubbles through social media exacebates this polarization. When I was a kid, if you belonged to a tiny opinion minority, 95% of the people you’d meet would disagree with you. You had to be very confident in your outlying opinion to stick with it. Your opinion would constantly be challeneged. If you didn’t want to be challenged you would either have to keep your opinion a secret or you would migrate to a locality where it was more accepted.

        Today you can commune with 10 million other like thinkers via social media and never need to confront an opposing view. What makes this worse is that search engines and social media will detect your opinions and preferentially direct results to you that you already agree with. That’s one driving force behind today’s polarization.

        Another issue is a shift in pedagogy to where the hard sciences and math were demphasized. It got so bad that the STEM initiative had to be launched just to ensure we’d have the engineers and scienctists we need in the future.

        I could go on and on. Eventually everything will level out and a new normal will be achieved. Until the next cultural shock upsets the apple cart and we have to adjust again.

  2. This is sooo true… that’s exactly how is going down here in America!!

    That’s because greed and power are a thing… people are NOT connected to nature typically!!

    There are some who abide the rules – but where I am (California) most are not giving a crap.

    Like I said, some actually are but not many… there are more who don’t care or who are protesting or against the government due to the way our leader has handled this. 🤨

    It’s a mess – and is scary … we are not invincible and we are not in control!!

    You are very lucky to have a wonderful upbringing like that!! I also had an upbringing that had lessons like that. ✌️

    1. Perhaps the time is right for people to learn a little collective humility? Yes, I was blessed to have been brought up in such a way by such people! Take care and stay safe. We can’t control the way others are behaving but we do have total control over how we behave. In the end, it’s important for a person to know that he or she did the right thing. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts.

  3. Indeed! We are NOT the only beings on the planet, period. My hope is that through education we can begin to challenge the systems that foster such elitist notions!

    1. It really does boil down to education (or lack thereof). I guess educators are the most essential of all essential workers! Thank, SnapDragon, and thanks for being a part of PO.

  4. Like someone said, humans need nature for their survival, but nature does not need humans for its survival. Humans need to learn humility once again. Hope the Corona lessons outlive the pandemic.

    1. Yes, Ankur, I couldn’t have said it better myself (and didn’t say it as well as you have). We need nature but nature doesn’t need us. In fact, it could do much better without our tendencies to pollute and destroy. (I guess you’ve seen all the stories about how clean the air got during the various lockdowns.) Thanks so much for leaving such a wise comment.

    1. My grandparents were very wise and I miss them. (Unfortunately, they are all gone now.) Thank you so much for participating in this discussion.

  5. My grandparents were also the most stable influence on my early life. It is sad that modern life is becoming more insular, regardless of corona virus, and these role models seem less available, and our opportunities to help them, less taken.

    1. Thank, Charles, for sharing your story. Those of us raised by our grandparents were given a special gift and at a very early age. It was a gift that continues to give. I hope we come out of this wiser, kinder, gentler, and with greater empathy.

  6. Having finished writing I went back to my e-mails and there the heading of another one hit me “finding my voice” which really summed up in a nutshell the ache i felt in my heart this morning, how, having been shown that which i have get the message out there to an aching world bent on destroying itself.

    1. I’m glad you liked Danielle’s piece. We are lucky to have her as a guest writer. Many do seem to be behaving self-destructively. I hope great learning comes from this. But as my father used to say, “Some lessons really hurt.” Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  7. Reading your post the way you grew up parallel with my growing up to my surprise. I also was a single child until I turned 8 years old. Then along came my baby brother. My grandparents didn’t live on a ranch but a boarding stables for horses so I spent my visits riding and visiting the horses who were boarded. I loved the horses who would whinny when I would walk down each row with sugar cubes in my pockets. From my 61 years of living, I have seen the people who care about our environment and the ones who don’t care at all. I read an article about people leaving a ton of trash when Florida opened up her beaches. As usual the towns live under a budget crunch and can’t police the beaches like I would love to see. I think this world runs on power and the almighty dollar which some people have more money then they could use in 20 lifetimes. Thanks for getting me thinking.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story. It does sound like we had somewhat similar upbringings. Yes, we are in a world of trouble right now in the US. Many countries are bringing their COVID situations under control. Of course, for those places, it’s been a struggle, but I don’t think America will ever get on top of the situation, at least until the election takes place. Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the country?

  8. Yup. We will learn to coexist with this virus as we have other viruses for a billion years of evolution. There is no reason to expect this will be any different. This is not saying that it couldn’t get very bad for individuals or particular subgroups but today we have science and technology unthought-of even 20 years ago.

    Coronaviruses are not “novel.” I wish scientists would be more clear on this. This specific coronavirus is “novel” but we have some natural ability to fight coronaviruses in general. MERS, SARS, and the common cold are all coronaviruses.

    But.. tune your wayback machine to a century ago. The “Spanish flu” is ravaging the nation. It is just the first time we met the H1N1 influenza virus, today aka “swine flu”. It was fought with exactly the same techniques as we are using today for COVID-19. Face masks, social distancing, quarantine of symptomatic individuals.

    First-time meetings are always awkward. It has visited us again several times but each time it was less lethal. Antibodies still circulated in previous survivors and people who were particularly susceptible are taken out of the gene pool.

    According to the CDC, “The H1N1 virus that caused that pandemic is now a regular human flu virus and continues to circulate seasonally worldwide.”

    Thanks to modern viral research, we finally got a vaccine in 2009. H1N1 will be with us forever. There is a huge reservoir in… pigs. To wipe it out like we did smallpox we’d have to vaccinate the world’s entire pig population. We could do that in theory but in practice it would be unlikely. Since we have a human vaccine, it is easier to go with prevention than eradication.

    We did eradicate smallpox. That was only possible because there are no nonhuman reservoirs, the world had a third the population back then and the scourge of smallpox was so terrible we were willing to take on the equivalent of a medical “moonshot.”

    Plague is another success story. The first time around, the Plague of Justinian, it killed off a hundred million people in a world of maybe 200 million. Next time around we have the Black Death of the Middle ages which probably killed around 50 million in a world of 400 million. (There was the Great Plague in London of 1660 where a tenth of the people died. It was a local epidemic and was short-circuited when the city burned down.) Finally we have the pandemic of 1896 which over the next couple decades only killed in the tens of thousands of people. Instead of a 50% mortality rate for those infections of the earlier Black Death, it was only 5%. Along came antibiotics to treat it and the mortality rate plummeted again.

    This is classic Darwin at work. Not only did the percentage of infected decrease with every later pandemic, the mortality rate of those infected decreased. We can consider technology to be a kind of non-genetic evolution.

    In advanced countries, most people don’t live in flea-infested squalor any more so plague is extremely rare and easily treated with antibiotics. But even in 3rd world areas where people DO live in flea-infested squalor, the infection rate is still low. Humans have evolved genetic resistance to plague bacteria. There is a vaccination for plague but It isn’t considered a sufficient threat to deploy it on a large scale.

    Right now, thanks to finally getting testing online, it looks like up to 40% of the people in the heavily affected areas of NYC have been exposed to COVID-19. That by itself is enough to slow the spread down and our best estimates are that 70% is what we need for herd immunity. (It isn’t as infections as measles which needs 95% or flu which needs 80%.) So I think we’ll live with COVID-19 and life will go on even without a vaccine.

    Unless you want to try to either kill off or immunize the bat population of the world, it will never go away like smallpox.

    1. I’m impressed, Fred. You seem to know a lot about the history of pandemics. Sadly, superstition is being stoked in the US right now. A “person who shall go unnamed” is weaponizing that superstition and ignorance. As someone who had devoted his entire professional life to helping students develop their critical thinking skill, this burns me up. What can be done about that sort of thing?

      By the way, I’m currently reading Daniel Defoe’s memoir of the London pandemic that you allude to in your comment. The book is readily available online, free of charge, as a PDF. You might find it interesting.

  9. Thanks for sharing. They needed to have a better way for us all to live during this “outbreak.” Their reaction & some of their continued response to a pandemic is to cause more destruction financially & in mass casualties mentally & physically to all the people of the world. I feel so bad for the younger people, people with small businesses. Even some larger companies have taken hits they can’t come back from.

  10. “Humans can deceive themselves into thinking that they are in charge for only so long”, this is so true. We think we’re invincible, we’re super-power but a small entity like a virus has hurt our big egos like anything! never underestimate the tiny invisible enemy 🙂

    1. I’ve been thinking the same thing. This time period seems to be one that is rife with irony. The “Superpower” is brought to heel by the microscopic. Humans see themselves at the top of the food chain but don’t realize that there is a chain, which means all life forms are linked together.

  11. My reply to your question ” Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the country?” I believe I’m right down the middle but as hope always springs eternal that I am.

  12. We are not even in control of ourselves. I would like to concentrate on a “lonely vs alone” part you mentioned. Just look at how many people lost their mind when realising they have to stay home and entertain themselves. I was unpleasantly surprised to hear so many complaints from a generation whose, so far, the only historic duty is to sit at home. (by that, I don’t mean losing jobs and income etc, but “aloneness” that you mention). And how many people are in relationships just because they are scared of loneliness – those relationships suffered badly in these times. We got so wrapped up in a belief that the world is on our plate, owning us, that we forgot our roots and ourselves, falling apart when cut off our resources.

    1. Hi. Sorry for the lateness of my reply. Like you, I am shocked by the number of Americans–I can only talk about my compatriots because I’m currently living in the US, my home country–who can’t simply be still and stay out of public places. Many are feeling abused if they can’t be “public.” I guess this indicates or suggests that lots of people are uncomfortable being alone with themselves and need external stimuli to be entertained or to remain happy. I assume that many people are behaving similarly where you live. In the past, Americans were actually capable of doing big things, difficult things. Many survived the Great Depression and fought in world wars. Today, many feel upset because they can’t eat out or have to wear a mask or can’t get their nails done. This is a bit embarrassing. As a person who spent many years living abroad, especially in places where there’s not a lot of material wealth, I am puzzled by the behavior of many in this country. Many don’t know themselves well enough to feel comfortable being alone. Many also seem to be engaged is all sorts of very selfish and self-destructive behavior.

      By the way, where are you from? Please post a link to your blog–I think you blog, right?–so we can check out your writing.

      Thanks for commenting.

      1. Hey Troy, sorry for the late reply. You think you’d have more time during lockdown but apparently not 😂 I agree with you and feel the same way. I know every generation thinks they have it worst, and each one has its ups and downs but this is getting embarassing.
        My blog is http://www.littlestreetjournal.com
        it’s my way of staying a tourist guide (I’m from Croatia) at least in the virtual world 😅

      2. Croatia looks like a beautiful place. I’ve traveled widely in Europe and lived in Poland for nearly three years. If I ever make it to Croatia, I’ll hire you to show me around. I’ve checked out your blog and I followed you (I think). I’ll check again and will follow if I haven’t already done so. I think you’re a pretty good writer. I wonder how close Croatian is to Polish? Both are Slavic languages, right? I got really good at Polish when I was there. I surprised myself by recently by speaking Polish pretty well with a couple of Poles. Thanks for the comment.

  13. It’s a worldwide phenomenon i guess.
    Up till now, a lot of people in my country still believe the virus is a hoax despite actual killing of prominent politicians.
    I think is the mentality, lack of education and religion that is the major cause!

    1. Hi. Where do you live? I think we’re in a period of time where superstition and irrationality seem to be increasingly popular. I am absolutely in agreement with you! By the way, do you blog? If so, why not post a link here so we can check out your writing. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      1. Yes, i am a blogger (though started late last month), and i live in Nigeria.
        Here is a link to one of my piece.


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