“We move through the world in a narrow groove, preoccupied with the petty things we say and hear, brooding over our prejudices, passing by the joys of life without even knowing that we have missed anything. Never for a moment do we taste the heady wine of freedom. We are as truly imprisoned as if we lay at the bottomof a dungeon, heaped with chains.”Yang Chu, Chinese philosopher, 4th Century B.C.E.
Venerable Yang reminds us of a basic human weakness, the tendency to predicate our lives on people, places and things over which we have no control. Instead, we allow them to control us. Why do we allow this to happen?
This is a question that occurs to most of us occasionally. We wonder why other people are so easily able to “make” us miserable. We fume at the activities of politicians, co-workers, loved ones who “make” us unhappy or discontented. We yearn to control our children, our pets, the course of our lives and, from afar, the activities of governmental entities and individuals who have never even heard of us and our opinions.
How many of us have found ourselves thinking, “if I could only get (my mother, my husband, my kids, my boss) to straighten up and do the right thing, my life would be just dandy!” Or, “as soon as I (get this degree, get married, get a better car, learn to…) everything will be OK.” Sound familiar? Logic tells us that such ideas are pretty silly. Nonetheless, deep inside many of us is the idea that we can shape our world in such a way as to create a state of “happiness.”
These desires arise from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of reality. We have been taught to believe, by the actions and attitudes of those who shaped our thinking, that we have the ability to control our world. No one, mind you, ever gets around to telling us how we are to achieve this control, but their attempts to control us, along with our observation of their attempts to control the other things in their lives, leave us with the conviction that we ought to be able to accomplish it, if only we work at it hard enough–long enough.
In reality, when has that ever been the case? Husbands do what they will do, as do wives. Kids mature and go through the stages of withdrawal from parental control, starting at about age 2 and culminating with their (biologically scheduled) departure from the old homestead in their middle to late teens. Bosses persist in thinking that they know more about running their businesses than their employees. Teachers (the good ones, anyway) insist on teaching, rather than allowing us to study what we please. Finally, the myriad other sentient beings in this world go about their business as though they have a right to their own pursuit of happiness.
Because we want to be noticed, because we need to be acknowledged, because we are unable to accept that the rest of the planet has a right to a life of its own, we fight tooth and nail to get our way–but how much control do we have, really? Can I truly control my child? I can tie him or her up, punish excessively, create fear, anger, withdrawal, hate–but can I really cause that child to do anything it does not want to do? No. I can create situations wherein others will do, under duress, that which I want done, but have I truly changed anything? No. Their attitudes will not change. They will simply do what they perceive to be in their best interest.* At most, all I can hope for is cooperation through fear, or discomfort, or simply to get me to shut up.
I can only influence the behavior of others in two ways: through example and through appealing to them in a way that they will interpret as being in their best interest. No amount of lecturing my children will make them honest. My example of always treating others fairly, never cheating on my income tax, expressing an ethical and moral code and following it scrupulously myself will teach them honesty. No amount of trying to beat respect into them will teach them to respect me; it can only teach them to fear, and that it is OK for powerful people to mistreat the less powerful. Showing them respect, providing guidance, and allowing them to make mistakes and learn from them will accomplish far more.
As to those politicians–I can rant, rave, email my friends, argue, worry, and generally waste a great deal of time and energy without changing their behavior one whit. I can waste untold hours debating on message boards, web pages, editorial columns and in person, without accomplishing much more than engaging the time and pseudo-intellectual efforts of people with nothing better to do with their lives than respond to my wasteful expenditure of my own.
I can vote, and on rare occasions interface with the politicians in other ways. Ultimately they will act in what they perceive to be their best interest. If I do not communicate my desires to them directly, or via my vote, I am wasting my time, my life, my vital resources.
I may not be comfortable in what I perceive to be a “powerless” position, and thus continue my fruitless efforts to effect changes, but that does not involve reality–only a skewed vision of how to obtain satisfaction. Unless I perceive that it is in my best interest to change my concept of “happiness” to one that has some possibility of being achieved, I am doomed to remain trapped in a vicious circle, doing the same things over and over again while hoping for different results.
I can change myself and the way that I interact with the world around me. That is all that I can ever change. I can only change the way that I live my life, and attempt to affect for the better the lives of those around me by dealing with them in effective ways–principally by example. Beyond that I can vote, sign petitions, and accept that things will often not go the way I would prefer. Happiness comes from within, or not at all. I must accept that my preferences will prevail in only a tiny fraction of the world’s affairs, and be comfortable with that.
Ideally, I can realize that preferences themselves are encumbering, but that is for another day.