By John Ptacek
When you go to a movie, you willingly suspend your beliefs for an hour or two. I’m only asking you to suspend them for a few minutes. This has to do with your happiness, so do pay attention.
You don’t exist. At least not in the way you think you do.
Oh, you’re a human being, alright, a physical contraption with a sophisticated brain that guides you step by step through your earthly journey. You had a mother and a father and perhaps a sibling or two. You’re married or you’re not. You have children or you don’t. You eat, sleep, have sex and recreate. One day you will stop breathing and either be incinerated or put into the ground. At your memorial service a lovingly arranged photo collage will capture the story of your life.
But was it really your life?
This sense of propriety is merely an illusion. The “you” that emerges as you rub the sleep from your eyes in the morning is a waking fantasy. While the figure reflected in the dresser mirror – the one sitting on the edge of a bed wearing a sleepy expression – is real, the idea that it is an independently functioning entity with a “you” manning its control center is a delusion. That “you” is pure fiction. “You” don’t control your actions any more than Homer Simpson does because neither of you exists beyond the borders of your imagination.
Since you no doubt fancy yourself to be a freewheeling individual, this can’t come as good news, at least not at first. Such a notion challenges the validity of your most basic assumptions about life.
The idea that there was a “you” controlling your actions was instilled at an early age. You were praised for smiling and burping, and not long after that you were scolded for throwing your food and pulling the dog’s tail. Well what else were you supposed to think after hearing all that contrary feedback except that you were choosing your actions instead of simply acting? It’s an idea that stuck, and since we were all babies once, we all grew up harboring the same illusion.
As you got older, your identity as an independent doer was corroborated by any number of sources. The concept of individual choice serves as the cornerstone of civilized societies, and why shouldn’t it? Lines governing social behavior have to be drawn somewhere, and individual choice is as good a concept as any to draw them around. If you steal someone’s car, you deserve a stay at the graybar hotel.
And then there’s the continuous drone of happiness gurus telling you that “you “should feel good about “yourself,” as if there are actually two of you squeezed into the same body – one enlightened and one clueless – in need of relationship counseling. That this split screen self-image breeds unhappiness seems to be lost on even on our most esteemed self-help experts.
So if you don’t control your actions, then who does? Why, Mother Nature, of course.
Evolution fated everything in its path, including you, who are but one of 5000 mammals within a larger group of 1.7 million known species. Your brain may be more advanced than a monkey’s, but all that extra horsepower doesn’t always translate into brilliance. How bright is it to conclude that human beings somehow subverted the will of the universe and wrested away control of their own destinies? Science fiction is a feeble substitute for science when probing for answers to life’s big questions.
Relatively speaking, of course, you make choices every day. You choose your hairstyle, your brand of toothpaste and the toppings to adorn your pizza. In the absolute sense, however, this is all a bittersweet fairy tale. You may think you’re choosing pepperoni over anchovies, but it’s your genes and environmental conditioning that are doing the choosing for you. There is no “you” apart from these natural building blocks. Free as you are to will what you do, you cannot will what you will. Like most mothers, Mother Nature insists on retaining some level of control over her children.
What’s all this got to do with your happiness? Only everything.
The source of so much of your unhappiness is your entrenched belief that we’re all choosing our behavior, and often choosing poorly. This belief is a stone in your shoe as you hobble through life judging everyone in sight.
You judge smokers for choosing to damage their lungs. You judge adulterers for choosing to destroy their families. You judge drug addicts for choosing to live in abandoned buildings and eat out of dumpsters. You judge distraught mothers for choosing to drown their children. You believe these people consciously chose tragedy over happiness. Of all the choices available to them, these miserable fates were the ones they really had their hearts set on.
And then you point your finger in the other direction. You judge yourself for choosing to eat too much, exercise too little and set your personal goals too low.
You drive yourself up a wall convinced that we’re all squandering our ability to make better choices.
Well now you can drop your distressing theory of human behavior and replace it with a new one: everyone’s doing the best they can with what life has given them.
It’s straightforward, compact enough to slap on your refrigerator as a reminder, and at least as plausible as any theory you’ve dreamed up so far. With that irritating stone removed from your shoe, you’ll discover a lightness in your step. You’ll stroll through life feeling grateful for what you have been given and sympathetic toward those who have been given less. Freed from the bondage of judgment, you will live in a perpetual state of forgiveness.
If all this is a bit too much for you to swallow – and it probably is, given how long you’ve been clinging to the idea that “you” are in control of your life – don’t despair. I’ve got a Plan B that will afford you the same life-enhancing benefits. Adopt the idea that we’re all doing the best we can as a philosophy. Live as if “you” mulled it over and decided it was an idea worth acting on.
About John Ptacek:
My life has been enriched by the teachings of wise men and women, and my essays attempt to demystify these sometimes cryptic teachings so that more may be exposed to their wisdom. They appear on my website, On Second Thought, www.johnptacek.com. I live in Wisconsin with my wife, Kitty.