How Cancer Shattered My Illusion of Control

I acted like I was master of my fate. I was a mist.
How Cancer Shattered My Illusion of Control
Image: Martin Barraud / Getty Images

Our sense of control is a reality because we are accountable for our choices. Scripture calls us to behave righteously, speak truthfully, and forgive lavishly. We are to be wise planners and prudent managers.

But it is also an illusion. Far too often, our sense of personal power becomes inflated, and we presume control that we simply do not possess.

Steve Jobs is an apt example. To develop breakthrough products, he created what biographer Walter Isaacson calls a “distortion reality field.” “Just as Star Trek aliens created their own new world through sheer mental force,” writes Isaacson, “in Jobs’s presence reality was malleable.”

This grand sense of self caught up with Jobs when, at the age of 48, he was diagnosed with a pancreatic tumor. Rather than follow his doctors’ advice and pursue immediate surgery, he visited a psychic and purged himself of what he called “negative energy.” As Isaacson observes: “This was the dark side of his reality distortion field—his assumption that he could will things to be as he wanted.”

Tragically, Steve Jobs waited nine months to follow his doctors’ advice. But by then it was too late.

The Shattered Illusion

I, too, was a leader who loved control. And I, too, was laid low by an out-of-the-blue diagnosis. My cancer involved a failing immune system, similar to what you see in AIDS patients. Without a risky bone marrow transplant, I would die of a common cold within 18 months. Given the thread-the-needle nature of such a procedure, my odds of regaining decent health were 20 percent. My odds of surviving were 50 percent.

Post-transplant, as I lingered on the edge of death, my white cell count plunged to zero. Depleted by massive doses of chemo and full-body radiation, I lost 20 pounds and took 50 pills a day. I looked—and felt—barely alive.

During the year of isolation that followed, I had ample time to reassess my sense of personal power. The harsh reality was evident: I had no control over contracting cancer, no control over finding a matching stem cell donor and no control dictating how my body would react to copious quantities of poison.

As I now look back, I am chagrined by my lifelong practice of supposing far more influence over circumstances and events than I actually possessed. Rather than being captain of a large boat in a small lake, I was more akin to the skipper of a small raft in the Pacific Ocean.

Control Overreach

Such presumptuousness is harshly critiqued by the apostle James: “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’” (4:13–15).

From James’s perspective, control overreach represents the height of human arrogance. Like Adam, Eve, and the builders of the Tower of Babel, we overstep our bounds when we claim too much authority. John Calvin calls this attitude a “crazy boldness that usurps more to self than is permitted.”

William Ernest Henley echoes this false self-confidence in his famed poem, Invictus: “I am master of my fate. I am captain of my soul.” This is dangerous business. Distortion reality fields eventually bite back. Recall the farmer in Jesus’ parable who tore down existing barns to build bigger ones, proudly declaring to be set up for “many years.” His arrogance led Jesus to label him a fool (Luke 12:16–21).

A simple scan of the news ought to convince us that many things lie beyond our choices. Consider the South Sudanese farmer who just a few years ago was celebrating the independence of a new nation. Today, he is struggling in a Kenyan refugee camp. Or observe the Syrian public-school teacher whose peaceful existence and fulfilling vocation have been ripped apart by a brutal civil war.

Less dramatically, and more locally, we do well to reflect upon economies that dip, children who go astray, cars that malfunction, spouses who misbehave, jobs that are discontinued, politicians who act unpredictably and bosses who get ornery. All are outside our control.

Hope for Control Freaks

Thankfully, there is an antidote for control overreach. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus encourages us not to worry about our lives (Matt. 6:25–34). In doing so, he is not telling us to abandon all sense of personal agency. We are indeed responsible for our choices. Rather, he is trying to liberate us from anxiety about matters beyond our influence.

Jesus declares that just as our heavenly Father provides for birds, so he will do for us. While they must perform their duties (e.g., make nests and feed their young), they are dependent upon a caring Creator for so much more.

Like the birds, our posture is to be one of reliance and trust. We are not to fret about circumstance beyond our power. Worry derives from the Middle English word for “to strangle.” Jesus wants to spare us from life-sapping anxiety.

As my sense of personal control has appropriately diminished over the past two years, my confidence in him has increased inversely. His provision is prodigal. He is thoroughly trustworthy, sovereign, and good. While I confess to not always understanding his ways, I lean into his strong arms. This frees me from the slavery of being (to echo Henley) master of my fate and captain of my soul.

For those of us who struggle with the illusion of control, this is great news. While taking responsibility for our God-given duties, we need not fret over matters outside our control. Releasing our anxieties to him, we live with confidence and joy.

Alec Hill is president emeritus of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He was diagnosed with myelodysplasia syndrome in April 2015.

May
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