Once, when my husband's cousin was driving on crowded, winding Highway 17 toward Santa Cruz, he lost control of the car and went into a high-speed skid, headed straight for another car. "Oh, no," thought Mike to himself, pulling up his legs toward his chest, "this is gonna hurt!" (Will Mike escape unharmed, or be paralyzed for life? Tune in at the end of this blog.)
Last night, while discussing Eric Weiner's THE GEOGRAPHY OF BLISS, my book club came to the conclusion that illusions of control contribute mightily to our sense of happiness. Moments of bliss can be serendipitous, yes, but miserable times feel less miserable if we feel we can do something about it.
Laurence Gonzales echoes this in DEEP SURVIVAL: WHO LIVES, WHO DIES, AND WHY. Gonzales studies people thrown into life-and-death situations and why some people pull through while others go fetal or run around like nutjobs until they fall off the lifeboat or whatever. One key determinant is the illusion of control--having a little task or goal outside oneself. For example, if you think to yourself, "My job will be to keep that one nutjob from falling overboard," that higher cause might just keep you alive long enough for the rescue boat to pull alongside.
But as much as we love control, we are fascinated and horrified by the loss of it. I've been reading Isaac Asimov's I, ROBOT, and all the stories of robot-human interaction involve our loss of control over robots. (I'm having one of those moments like when I read LORD OF THE RINGS after HARRY POTTER, thank you very much, and realized Dumbledore and the dementors were heavily inspired by Gandalf and the Ring-Wraiths. Asimov's robots similarly inspired everything from HAL to BATTLESTAR GALACTICA's Cylons to that darned little self-propelling floor vacuum that doesn't go where you want.) Loss of control makes for great conflict in stories. Control regained makes for great plot resolution.
This even applies to my book, which is this very second sitting, completed, at the printer's! Cass loses her life as she knew it in one fell blow, spends a fair amount of time drifting helplessly, then finds herself re-engaged when she begins making choices again.
Anyhow--about Mike. He miraculously escaped not only death but even injury. And not because he regained control of the car. No, it was that other slippery factor involved in our survival and happiness: dumb luck.