We wish each other peace, joy and love this time of year. Seems like a simple way to happiness. Why is it so hard?
At Christmas Eve dinner with friends someone asked the question, “If your life could be any movie you wanted, what would it be? Who would play you? Who would play the role of your true love? Would you change the ending? What would the new ending be?
The conversation was lively, and the merriment branched into some interesting discussions. Over dessert someone said, “If I could change one thing in my movie, it would be myself. The challenge of my life is that I am stuck being myself in it. I wish someone would give me a vacation for Christmas—a vacation from myself. What good is being on a beach in some beautiful, exotic place, if I’m there with myself.”
Of course, normally hearing someone talk like this, one’s first reaction would be something like, “Oh, come on. You are so successful. You have three wonderful children, a fine relationship with your wife, and you have a great job. There are a whole lot of people who would love to trade places with you.” (Which someone said.) Then there would also be: “Poor you! I sure hope you are seeing a therapist. All this self-loathing and negativity about yourself; you need to learn to love yourself.” (Which no one said.)
But in the conversation that ensued it became clear that we all had some awareness that we are trapped and that the trap is our selves.
Of course, this is literally the case for all humans. Our marvelous human brain hides a tragic flaw. On the one hand, our brains are miraculously designed to know stuff, and by the time we are five we know thousands of things—everything from how to turn on a light to how to annoy our mothers. By the time we are adults we know a million things—from the theories of physics behind making lights go on to how to take care of our mothers. Our thoughts, our actions, even our feelings flow from this knowledge. Actually, it’s all one thing. We are our knowledge.
And that can be a good thing. After all, it is because of the quality of my friend’s knowledge that he was able to be so “successful” (children, wife, job, vacations on the beach, Christmas Eve dinners with friends, etc.)—well, that and a little luck.
On the other hand, all this genius has an underbelly. All of our knowledge is a fabrication. We think it’s real because it works enough of the time to have “proven itself,” but it is still precisely “all in our heads.” When we react to something in our environment—like a smile or a curve ball—we are reacting to a construct of our brains, not the thing itself.
One result is that we get things wrong. Another is that we conflict with others. We think we know (where you put the keys, how to make a lasagna, God is love, etc.), but others know different. This can lead to everything from an argument to mass murder.
Still another result showed up at our Christmas Eve dinner. Each of us is frustrated with the gap between how we know things could be and our capabilities. Here’s a short list:
I can’t seem to write anything longer than three pages and have it be any good.
This voice of judgment in my head paralyzes me.
I can’t find the time to get the exercise I know I need.
I keep getting mad at other people on the highway.
I can’t produce a drawing of a building that is any better than anything else I have already seen.
I keep stubbing my toe.
I want to lose weight, but I can’t stop eating.
The slightest irregularity, and my amygdala takes over leaving my pre-frontal cortex aghast at my behavior.
Then someone said: “I can’t get my son to behave the way he needs to in order to be successful in this world.”
“Wait,” replied the mother to my left, “I gave up on that back when my oldest turned twenty.”
Then it came to me: Being Right has nothing to do with our main markers of happiness, Peace, Joy, Love, and yet so often we put it first. My New Year’s resolution: to have fun experimenting with being wrong.