Friday, September 2, 2011

Against the Common Wisdom

I received an e-mail forward last night from someone who is on a mass mailing list for some sort of inspirational website. She sent the message to me, however, not in an effort to share a motivating, joyful sentiment, but rather in pursuit of sympathy. It was accompanied with an indication that she felt unfortunate to have received such a message on that day. I’m not really sure whether that is because my friend felt as though the universe was taunting her for a personal failing through the e-mail, or just because she didn’t get the lift out of it that she so earnestly needed on a day when she learned that she had not gotten a job that she wanted very much and was rather confident she would get. I do, however, know my own response to the bit of ostensible inspiration, and I know that it would be constant, regardless of the circumstances of the day.

The mass-mailed message read as follows, attributed to an unknown “but very much appreciated” author:
“Your life does not change when your boss changes, when your friends change, when your parents change, when your partner changes, when your company changes. Your life changes when YOU change, when you go beyond your limiting beliefs, when you realize that you are the only one responsible for your life.“

After I e-mailed my friend with a response and a refutation, I hoped that the existential taunting that it presented to her was made up for somewhat by the fact that it had provided me with a good reason to take a moment for undercutting a bit of “common wisdom” that has aggravated me for years.

The most glaring problem with the above inspirational quotation is its factual inaccuracy. Your life does not change when the people in your life or your daily activities change? I’m pretty sure it does. Every different job that I have had has marked a very distinct period in my life. Losing friends has had a profound impact on what I did with my days, how I felt overall, and what influences were predicated upon me. Gaining new friends has done the same. I can only speak to my own experience, but it’s very, very difficult for me to imagine that the situation is any different for anyone else. A person would have to be an absolute zombie in order to coast through the circumstances of their live, unperturbed, unaffected, undeveloped, amidst all of the alterations and impacts, miseries and profundities of the world around them, changing behavior, beliefs, and ideas only when they personally decide to change.

Yet I hear this sentiment expressed all the time, this idea that only you can change yourself. Are the people who repeat this at every turn actually blind to the importance of circumstance? Do they genuinely believe that nothing has happened within their bodies, minds, or spirits which was outside of their own control? Why does the statement that you’re in control of your own life appear so commonplace to me, and the statement “no man is an island” so rare? The latter idea is far more meaningful an observation of the plain reality of existence.

Of course, there is something to be said for the idea that personally-created change is possible. It’s true, there is a lot that can be accomplished by sheer force of will, but even that kind of change occurs within the boundaries of external circumstances. I don’t object to the assertion that one can “go beyond one’s limiting beliefs,” and I understand that the quotation was being offered to mailing list members as a way of prompting them to put forth that little bit of extra effort (although it bears pointing out that receiving the e-mail is itself circumstantial). But part of the actual effect of parroting that set of platitudes is that it essentially chastises people who have made every possible effort at positive change and have still come up against a brick wall.

Sure, you can go beyond your limiting beliefs, but simply believing with all your heart that things will work out doesn’t cause that to be the case in reality. My friend is a great example of that fact, in that she has a certain unshakeable faith that persists no matter what. I expect that it is that sort of attitude that makes her a willing recipient of daily inspiration e-mails. Neither of our lives are in good places, but when I lament my own situation in her presence, she reassures me with the utmost confidence that things will definitely work out in time. I have a certain amount of pigheadedly persistent faith, myself, but nothing on the level that comes so easily to her, so I don’t share that confidence. I wouldn’t say that either of us has a more realistic outlook, though, because when it comes right down to it, no outlook on the future has any relation to reality, because no one has any idea what will happen next. Our beliefs can change our motivation and our mood, but ultimately whether or not it works out, whether life changes in some substantial way for us is dependent at least in some measure on external factors.

You can go beyond your limiting beliefs and you might reach the stars, or you might just fall off the edge of the Earth. There are no guarantees. Similarly, you can hold tight to cynicism and let yourself be buried in shit, and you might drown in it, or you might wake up some day in a flourishing garden. It’s really wide open. Positive thinking can change what’s inside of you, but on its own it does not change your life. Your life is more than what’s inside of you.

So telling someone that they can change their circumstances purely through belief and will, regardless of what they are – telling them that even without knowing what those circumstances are – effectively mocks them. It is equivalent to saying that whatever is wrong with your life, it is your fault. And not only is it your fault, it is something that you chose, and even now you’re choosing not to get out of it. People who say this must also say that if you’re unemployed your problem is not circumstantial, it’s mental; if you can’t pay your rent, your problem is not financial, it’s spiritual; if you’re sick or injured or abandoned, nothing happened to you that you didn’t let happen to you.

The sentiment that you can choose your way out of problem situations is meaningful, and it is true, but only within such circumstances as allow a person the freedom to enact the choice he or she wishes to make. Failing that, you need to try your best to keep your head up just until you get a job, or your health recovers, or the situation changes for your social dependents.

You are the one who is most responsible for your life, but saying that you are the only one who has responsibility for your life is stunningly shortsighted and makes the shocking mistake of giving the individual far more credit than the entire world he or she inhabits. It is a sentiment that promotes so much ego that when things are going wrong for someone, he is trained to blame only himself, and when things are going well, he withholds praise from anyone else. Of course, no one really wants to self-blame, but virtually everyone would love to take credit for anything praiseworthy that has touched him, so I would wager that this idea that everyone’s life is entirely in their own hands is an idea that’s created and advanced by comfortable, successful people, in the interest of being able to say, “What I have, I got all on my own.” That’s never the case. For everything you’ve got, you owe someone a debt of gratitude, because as much as you coveted it and worked for it, you weren’t isolated for a second along the way.

I’m doing everything in my power to make my position in the world more significant and meaningful and rewarding, but I constantly pause to remind myself that if ever I actually achieve a modicum of success, it won’t be something that I can claim ownership of, no matter how much it appears that way. The fact that I am even able to get up in the morning now is attributable less to my own intrinsic spirit than to the very few positive elements of my life, which could at any moment leave me or be taken away. I hope that if things change, I still remember to thank them for their role in getting me from this shore to the next. And in the meantime, I keep a measure of sanity about me by reminding myself that although I may have screwed up here and there, I alone could never have created the life that I now occupy. Every aspect of it has been altered by the unseen influence of millions of other human beings, just as I am an unseen circumstance in the lives of so many others. Despite the emphatic claims of the common wisdom, when it comes down to it, everybody is responsible for everybody.

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