Are our lives truly an open book? We commonly ascribe many things we want – the ideal job, the ideal lifestyle and the ideal marriage partner – to the widely held consensus of “if you set your mind on something, you will eventually obtain it”. It’s not hard to see why such a write-your-own-adventure approach is comforting. It assumes that the means to succeed is innate but laziness (among other vices) often holds us back. It also unfortunately, and too conveniently, simplifies every human being into equal opportunity clones with the same potential but varying levels of diligence.
The belief that we are in control of our lives is also an important argument in religion – that we are given, by means of divine intent, the ability to choose how we want to lead our lives. For most religions, this would necessitate copious prayers and choosing to follow a strict and somewhat nonsensical knee jerking around what food to avoid or what sexual behaviour is deemed appropriate. But clearly there are many things we can’t control: we know homosexuals can’t override their behaviour just like psychopaths can’t stop themselves from hurting and manipulating other people.
Not only do we have no choice over where and whom we are born to, we also have completely no say in our biological reward system. Barring some rare cases, our brain greatly rewards us for survival and reproduction. As anyone who has the slightest brush in mutual love will attest to, we are certainly more than motivated when we are drawn deeply to the right person. And if a separation ensues, the severance leaves one incomplete, if not hollow. And yet, these reward and penalties were not for us to choose, nor were they administered by choice.
It’s difficult then to say we are in control of ourselves when we cannot explain why we feel so exceedingly good in the company of those we love. We are also unable to account for where our desires or urges come from. Sometimes we feel like eating a grossly over sweetened desert, and other days, nothing’s better than having a large slice of pizza with generous cheese toppings. While these inclinations are likely influences from the food we enjoyed in our childhood, these cravings are not within our ability to control. It would appear that food, like love, is a ship that has already sailed. We know what we want, and we can’t reason it out.
If our reward system has already been pre-determined by our genes and childhood parenting, what control do we have left? Einstein I am sure, definitely found immense pleasure from working nonstop on his theories even as his family imploded around him. In a letter he wrote later in life, he said, “What I admire in your father is that, for his whole life, he stayed with only one woman. This is a project in which I grossly failed, twice.” It would appear that our strengths and weaknesses correspond to our biological reward system – which can go as far as determining whether we are able to stay faithful to a partner.
Finally, recent scientific research has yielded important insights: the bacteria in our gut that aids in digestion can influence our mood and even how much we want to eat; brain tumours can cause unexpected abnormal behaviour; and viral infections can sometimes change our personality. But even without these scientific tidbits, there are many things for which we cannot account for. Why do we feel more studious when entering a library? Why do we universally concur on the traits that comprise beauty? Why are some people more likely to fall into depression? There’s a great deal happening behind the scenes but none of the answers are factors within our ability to control.
So have you thought (HYTA) about whether you are in control of your life?