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March 4th, 2019
It’s often observed and suggested that we cannot control others, only ourselves. As a comparison, this makes relative sense, but this notion is highly problematic and inevitably: misleading. Indeed we cannot imagine and implement some kind of dictatorial program for another person and have them follow it to the letter: though it ought to be noted that the hierarchy of labour in the workforce does a fairly incredible job at piercing this idea that other people cannot be controlled. The incessant and accurate behavior of millions to wake up at specified times and arrive at work locations relatively on time and then perform particular integrated tasks for the majority of the day would seem to indicate otherwise. Much of this activity is also done while inhibiting natural drives, for more sleep, for food, and curiosity for more interesting uses of time. But this is only one problem with the adage that we cannot control others. The larger problem with this notion of control is that we can control ourselves as fully as the word implies.
Not a single human is unfamiliar with the experience of acting in a way that is counter-productive to our own benefit. Whether this is shirking responsibilities, or mindlessly grabbing a tub of ice cream or failing to listen to someone we truly care about, all of us can only maintain a degree of control over what we do and how we do it. Arguments about free will aside, there are straight-forward examples in experience that illuminate this point. Staying up late to watch just one more episode for example, leaves us groggy and less able to perform the next day, and there are limits to what it seems we can control.
The very prevalence of statements that start with I wish I hadn’t or I don’t feel like it, point directly at this lack of control, not to mention any kind of general dissatisfaction or disappointment when looking in the mirror or at a financial statement or thinking about one’s past accomplishments – or lack thereof.
Control clearly exists on a spectrum. Some can maintain an almost robotic drive and productivity, while others wile away decades of life without ever really doing anything. It’s incredibly short sighted and unrealistic to simply slap such people with a label of lazy and call it a day. Surely the causes here are more intricate than such snap judgments imply.
For example, the neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky has written in depth about how the chronic stress of a life in poverty heavily influences people on the level of brain chemistry to make decisions based on short-term outcomes as opposed to long-term benefit.
A blunt and ultimately inaccurate way of translating this finding into a real world image would be like forcing a top CEO of a major company to take shots of vodka perpetually through the day. Would it really be confusing if the company started to suffer from decisions being made at the top while under the influence? This seems like a no brainer. We have strict laws against what a person is allowed to do while under such influence, and yet the poor are often criticized for their bad decisions. Meanwhile such bad decisions compound and add to the sort of stress that makes such bad decisions more likely. The neuro-chemical influences here are far less obvious than a CEO who is knocking back alcohol at an alarming rate, and so, without the visibility, such people are often labeled as lazy. We might wonder what label would be more understanding when confronted with a more intricate picture of what is going on.
Regardless of problems of category or empathy, what is overwhelmingly obvious is that control is far more elusive in practice than it is straight-forward in definition.
Long lasting changes are not likely to happen all of a sudden in the manner we might imagine some kind of miraculous religious conversion occurring. Though, such a kind of miracle is very appealing and tempting: perhaps particularly so for those whose mode of short-term thinking is already geared towards quick results. We might wonder –controversially- about a connection between poverty and religious belief, one of which broadcasts a salvation from the stress of the other? Regardless of the sanctity of any particular belief, we might simply wonder about the statistical probability: is a religious person more likely to be financially well-off and totally unaccustomed to financial stress, or is such a person more likely to have had encounters with such chronic financial stress? We might further wonder about such institutions that urge their constituents to contribute in a way that adds financial burden thereby potentially increasing the emotional need for such religious beliefs, as opposed to looking for funding solely from sources that risk no such financial stress. This starts to sound very much like a system with an insidious and invisible feedback loop.
Shall we blame the piston head for going down if it is perpetually being pushed into a sparkplug that ignites fuel in an iron cage?
Control is less about some imagined ability of ironclad will that we can call up within ourselves like a magical genie.
Control is about a sum of influences and their interaction with circumstance and situation. A tub of ice cream sitting in the fridge makes it infinitely more likely that we will consume and regret huge dollops of sugar than if there were simply no ice cream in the house at all. The mere presence of the temptation in our circumstance is exhibiting some kind of control. If not on our actions in this moment, certainly on our thoughts, which is all an influence needs in order to have some degree of control.
We are better off to think about our selves, not as a free and independent agents that move through reality, but more as a sum of circumstantial influences. The crucial point in this second image is that we can alter our circumstance, even if it’s just tiny portions of this circumstance, these changes will further have an affect on us and if that affect lands well, it may enable us to have the ability to make further changes in our circumstance that further have increasing effect on who we are.
This is the incredibly difficult, counter-intuitive and rare task of cutting a feedback loop and feeding it into a new direction and better direction.
Two images can help to illustrate this concept in practical ways.
We can imagine the smoker who consciously decides to stop smoking by responding to the urge to smoke with a different behavior. Instead of tapping out a cigarette, the smoker goes for a run. This is incredibly difficult, literally counter-intuitive in the sense that it’s counter to our feelings on the subject, and it’s rare to pull this off because engaging the executive function like this with a high enough consistency for the habit to change is not an obvious process that we can feel our way through. We literally can’t feel our way through this process because our feelings are geared towards the prior behavior. We have to think our way through it and consciously decide that our feelings on the matter are incorrect and should not have as much influence on the situation.
The second image is the person in a state of chronic poverty who decides to start meditating. The stress of not being able to pay bills is ever present and the general feelings that arise are going to be in the vicinity of restlessness and agitation. Such a person is likely to look at meditation as a waste of time that could be used to some benefit, however, this is a short-term mode of thinking that is driven by scarcity. A thoughtful consideration of the situation might lead a poor person to realize that one of the contributing factors is the experience of stress itself. Regardless of the causes, meditation, if maintained with enough consistency can become a partial antidote to the stress caused by poverty. This reduction in the neural-chemical expression of stress opens up the brain to a slightly better ability to make good decisions. These good decisions can slowly begin to improve the innately stressful situation in tiny ways that ideally compound and add up. Again, like the smoker, this is counter-intuitive because the stressed person is not likely to think that meditation is a good use of time since it has no obvious and direct correlation with the causes of stress.
Both situations sever a feedback loop and introduce the influence of a seemingly unrelated factor. With enough consistency, or enough nudges in these better directions, a virtuous cycle can being to form where before there was a vicious cycle.