On Control: A Lesson from Synechdoche, New York

6 min read

A rambling inspired by a very good movie.

Synechdoche, New York was a movie I saw the other day. It was perplexing. My intellect had taken a toll after two hours of attempting to figure out what was going on. However, when the closing credits began to roll, I realized I had accomplished my goal. I sat down and watched two hours of whatever it was, and I wasn't bored. This surprised me because my favorite movie player shortcut is the "10 seconds forward" button. Anyway, I'm not going to talk about how fantastic the movie is; instead, I'm going to talk about what I observed when I watched the movie. And, to discuss that remark, I'll try to give a brief overview of the film.

Caden Cotard, a not-so-talented playwright and theater director who, by luck, obtains a grant to write and produce an original play, is our protagonist in Synechdoche, New York. As a means of escape from his horrible domestic life and declining health, he immerses himself in this play. The play becomes an absurd mockup of New York City and the line between what's real and what's not become increasingly blurred. Caden is then morphed into the play and relinquishes control of the world he created. That’s the main topic I plan to talk about today; Control.

The concept of "Control" has many grey areas and is frequently defined based on individual context. Nonetheless, this idea of "complete control over our lives" has gained traction. This could be related to societal modernization. Humans were not very capable in the past. As a result, they had to accept that some things were above them. Stoics surrendered to nature, Christians submitted to God, and so on. In any case, almost everyone's worldview contained an element of "lack of control." However, as time passed, our species progressed. Humans were constantly pushing the boundaries and accomplishing feats that were once thought to be impossible. This has inherently created a sense of self-reliance, an idea of oneself that is potentially more powerful than one initially thought. Early human thought systems (such as faith) were replaced by new ones, such as rationality, science, philosophy, et al. As a result, even the most devout religious individuals believed they had more autonomy.  

Humanity’s rapid modernization has increased individual confidence. Modern sociopolitical and economic theories, such as capitalism, have emphasized the individual's autonomy even more. If not viewed as a weakness, ethical concepts such as altruism have become less popular. In this regard, one could even argue that humanity's progress has been a reversion to Hobbes’ "state of nature." 

My understanding of Caden in the film is as someone obsessed with control. Failing in every other aspect of his life, he wants this play to go his way, just as he planned it. He goes over everything, obsessing over the smallest details of his grand performance. We eventually see him lose the control he worked so hard to keep. After all, the play was bigger than him, and he was nothing more than another character on the stage.

I believe most of you understand where I'm going with this. We all have this “play” of ours that we give a high meaning to in our life. And it has to be perfect; exactly as we planned. Much like Caden, we put in a lot of time and effort to ensure that this "play" follows our "script." However, many of us discover the hard way that we may not be as in control as we thought. Various challenges that we couldn’t anticipate stand in our way, forcing us to be a character of some other play rather than the director of our own.

Now, I consider myself an existentialist, and I believe in individual autonomy or control over our lives. However, this constant need to maintain control may be the source of our dissatisfaction. We have a difficult time humbling ourselves, and it is not easy when the universe, God, or whatever does it for us. As humans, we have accomplished far more than any other species in history. I fear that this has instilled a sense of collective arrogance. We toil and turn, attempting to assert control over every aspect of our lives, oblivious to the fact that our very existence may be larger than us. Most of our life philosophy, in my opinion, fails to recognize this. 

A control-oriented worldview has one goal; overcome. Because you are in command and nothing is bigger than you, you must fight and triumph. And, yes, there are many aspects of our lives that we must conquer. But, while we are preoccupied with overcoming, we neglect to embrace. A healthy dose of embracing must be present in our lives if we are to find happiness. We must recognize that there are forces greater than ourselves, and we must learn to accept certain aspects of our universe. The world is absurd, and certain things may occur that we do not wish to occur. But that's just a part of our existence, and attempting to exert control over everything won't change that.

The greatest lesson Synechdoche offered me is this: you can’t be in control of everything. There will always be something beyond me, no matter how hard I try or how many times I tell myself otherwise. As a human, I must learn about my limitations just as I would about my strengths. nd I must accept my limitations because they are a part of my identity. My existence, I believe, will be much more enjoyable after that. While I’m not a stoic myself, I’ll end this piece with a quote from a great stoic philosopher.

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” -Epictetus

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