Land Iguanas and the Illusion of Control

Land Iguana staring at a prickly-pear, as if to control its ripening

Land Iguanas and the Prickly-Pear

Land iguanas on the Galapagos Islands eat centipedes and carrion, but they prefer prickly-pear fruit. Unlike their marine cousins, they can’t climb the cactus, so they stand beneath the sprawling limbs and gaze up at the pears, waiting for one to ripen and fall to the ground. This can take hours or days, yet through it all, the creature waits. [1]

I first learned about this startling reptile from one of our URC members who shared his experience of seeing them sit unmoving for days at a time. From reading about the reptiles, I learned that the creatures take breaks to catch insects and copulate, but mostly they spend their lives waiting for fruit to fall.

What patience and zen-like forbearance these animals must have to remain so still. Are they bored? Blissed out? What’s it like to depend on nature or the divine graces to bless one with fallen fruit, and what if another iguana scoops up the pear before the first can claim it? Does it become angry, or does it perform the equivalent of a philosophical shrug? Perhaps the iguanas long to control the moment of release, that instant when the fruit lets go and plummets.

Surely they know that isn’t possible. They have no more control over the prickly-pear than over the rhythm of the waves around them. I imagine the reptiles accept their lot without doubt or question, living from one moment to the next without regret or anxiety. But what if they do think they can force nature to bend to their will? Would that not make them almost human?

Land Iguana staring at a prickly-pear, as if to control its ripening

To Control the Falling of the Pear

Hearing the story of the iguana, another of our members said she could relate to the reptiles. She often felt as if she could make something happen by willing it. Unless she watched the fruit, she told herself, it wouldn’t fall. She wasn’t worried that if the pear hit the ground when she wasn’t there, she’d lose it to a rival. No, she told us, she got caught in the trap of believing she could control whether it fell or didn’t.

Similarly, the rest of us imagine our prayers, rituals, or chemicals will create the life we want, bring the rain and quiet the hurricane. No matter how much we dance or beg or seed the clouds, though, the rain and the hurricane do as they will, untouched by our ministrations and pleas. They are beyond our influence.

Ironically, the intensity with which we try to control life is the degree to which we get trapped. We become like the iguana who dares not move because the fruit hasn’t fallen.

This may sound extreme. How many of us stare into trees, willing the apple or plum to drop at our feet? Probably no one. Yet many of us guard our children, screen their friends, monitor their activities, as if we could keep them from making trouble, joining different religions, getting sick, and causing accidents? We can’t control all they do, nor what they think. Nor can we control the freak things that happen to them. None of our loved ones are safe, no matter how hard we stare at them.

The Likelihood of Serendipity

Yet we act as if we have control. That’s because most of the time, things work out. At least in the United States, most children live to adulthood. Most of us wake each morning to find our world pretty much as we left it. Life fulfills our expectations, so we feel justified in believing we control our fate, that we can draw good things to us, or that we have a guardian angel.

The few times disaster does strike, we often seek reasons, assign blame, look for the “gift,” figure out what went wrong so we can keep it from happening again. Until we settle the “why,” we feel uncertain. We don’t like being reminded that we can’t control life, that it’s not our will that keeps fate from jerking the rug from beneath our feet and toppling us over.

Not that we don’t try. Indeed, some of us do make our lives worse by our choices. How we treat ourselves and others makes a difference. Addiction, animosity, and anger tend to isolate us and make life harder. Coping skills, generosity, and patience help. It’s okay to meditate, watch our diet, donate to churches, pray before surgery, and teach our children to be kind. Yet none of this guarantees we won’t get hurt, and none of this is an excuse to defend ourselves from anxiety by blaming those who are injured or raped or robbed or impoverished or starved or carried away by the vagaries of existence. If bad things don’t happen to us, it’s not because we’re courageous, smart, or virtuous. It’s because we’re lucky.

Who Survives and Who Doesn’t

Doubtless you have heard stories of people who just missed being run over or getting caught in a fire. If we miss our flight and then the plane crashes, leaving us in the terminal, breathless, but alive, we tend to think someone is protecting us. Maybe we were saved because we have a special purpose, or because God loves us, or because our children need us.

Yet what of those who died? Did they lack purpose? Were they unloved by God? Are their children just fine without them?

The people who share such fantastic stories with me rarely consider the ones who didn’t make it. They’re just grateful God chose them to live. They figure there’s a reason. Most of them are still looking for that reason, as if they were created for some beatific moment when they will do this great, transformative thing. Sometimes they tell me that God won’t take them from this world until they’ve done what they were put here to do. Does that mean if that they dawdle, they’ll live longer?

Even if we haven’t found that special purpose for our lives, we tell stories about the one who survives, as if survival were somehow unusual. It isn’t. Day after day, we avoid tragedy. Our lives are filled with coincidences, some mundane, some amazing. Because of how our minds work, we can’t help but attach meaning to the those events. By itself, that’s not a problem. Finding a purpose in life is important. It helps keep us healthy and happy and sane.

Finding Meaning and Purpose

Yet if we divine a life purpose for ourselves, even if that purpose gives us hope and blesses the world, it doesn’t mean God gave it to us. Of course, I can’t prove God didn’t. Either way, having a purpose doesn’t make us special. If God gave one to you, God also gave one to me and to the clerk at the jewelry store, to the stunt racer, to the lion tamer. If one of us has a divine purpose, all of use do, no matter how empty, or broken, or useless our lives seem. On the other hand, if there is no God handing out life purposes, we can still create one for ourselves.

What does this have to do with control? How does it help the iguana who is trapped by his need to watch and wait without ceasing? Could that be the creature’s purpose, to witness to the ripening of the prickly-pear, like a child watching a sunrise or an audience listening to a symphony?

Trapped by Our Need to Control

We can’t control when the fruit chooses to let go, though we may have some control over whether or not we manage to snatch the fallen pear before our adversaries do. How observant are we, how fast, how bold? Life includes races, tournaments, challenges. Some of us win; some don’t. Yet most of us excel in something.

Still, even the most accomplished among us cannot control how our lives play out. It’s not our fault if we were born to a wealthy family or to loving parents. Nor is it our fault if we weren’t. And these are just two of the many variables over which we have no control that nonetheless influence our lives in crucial, sometimes excruciating, ways.

The more convinced we are that the fruit will fall only if we watch, the less control we have. Our desperation, hunger, anxiety, loneliness, and addiction keep us trapped in an illusion of control. Because it frightens us to think that, in the space of a heartbeat, tragedy can leave us sprawling on the floor, if indeed there still is a floor, we would rather wear ourselves out trying to make the world conform to our wishes. If it doesn’t, we distort facts until we see only what we want to see and know only what we want to know. Desperate to control everything around us, we sometimes imagine a world that isn’t there.

If we dare not leave our post at the cactus, we will miss out on so many joys. Some of us will gladly give up happiness to maintain our illusion of control.

Control and Happiness

I can’t say the iguana isn’t happy. And we can learn from its intensity of focus. Yet we have not evolved, nor, if you prefer, have we been created, to live a reptile’s life. It’s not up to us to observe the prickly-pear into ripening. It’s up to us to embrace the mystery, to welcome serendipity, and to create meaning out of tragedy. To do this takes a willingness to welcome whatever comes.

When we are strong, flexible, and connected to the source of life and love, when we realize we can cope with adversity, then we can let go of control. We won’t need the illusion of safety or sanctity.

Not that we won’t sometimes slip back into fear and trepidation. We may find ourselves trying to force the fruit to ripen, the world to obey our whims. That’s not terrible. When we notice we have gotten lost again in that illusion of control, we can walk away from the stress of trying to force what cannot be forced. We can seek joy in creativity and uncertainty. Life can surprise us with its blessings. All will be well, even when it isn’t, for we will have found a way to flow with all the vagaries that are our lives.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Information about iguanas taken from: “Galapagos Land Iguana,” Wikipedia, last edited June 9, 2019, accessed 7/23/19, and “Land Iguana Facts,” Natural Habitat Adventures, accessed 7/26/19, and Tibbitts, Alison Davis, “Iguanas in the Galapagos Islands,” Yachting, November 1995, Vol. 178, No. 5, 57-61.

Photo by Michael Payne on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved