I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.
– Stephen Leacock in Literary Lapses (1910)
I was having a discussion the other day with a friend on facebook about life’s lessons (both good and bad). The subject of some things at least ‘seeming’ to have some kind of ‘fate’ tied to them and the lessons that we take from them came up. I commented that basically, ‘yeah, it sure seems that way sometimes’ but acknowledged that I don’t entirely buy into a notion of fate in regards to that perception. The entire conversation culminated with my interjecting the famous line from the song popularized by the Rolling Stones:
You can’t always get what you want. You can try sometimes but you just might find, you get what you need
I thought deeper on this today and realized a couple of things that steered me considerably more away from any acknowledgment of ‘fate’ playing a role in the things we experience. (thus the quote from Leacock at the start of this entry)
The topic in question is how the life experiences we have contribute to the people we become. More specifically, the focus was on the lessons we take from them and how sometimes, the combination of our successes and failures seem to almost have a purpose to them. ‘Sometimes they seem to be what you needed.’ Akin to being subject to some kind of outside (mystical?) influence, purpose or design. Upon reflecting further about this a number of other factors came to mind that are quite interesting to consider.
The first is how our minds work. Let’s take some very simple examples of positive and negative experiences.
1. You stub your toe. How do you react?
Well at first you would probably pull your foot away instinctively before even becoming fully aware of any pain. You might hop around a bit until the pain subsided. Eventually when the pain stimulus abates, you are going to likely walk around more carefully.
2. Someone brings you a treat (can i has cookie?) because you did something (without really thinking about it) that helped them. How do you react?
At first you might be surprised, especially if whatever you did just seemed to be the right thing to do. You may tell them “you didn’t need to do that!” and you will probably thank them and ultimately enjoy eating your treat. After that you will probably be more inclined both consciously and unconsciously to help them more often.
What am I getting at here? The mind has a great many built in functions, reward/punishment type responses not being the least of them. Many of these ‘built ins’ are things we don’t have to think about. Memory is also influenced by this instinctual nature of how the mind automatically emphasizes focus on positives and negatives.
Experiences that result in positive outcomes are generally going to result in a memory recall of the ‘good’ things related to those successes more so than the negative. Conversely, negative outcomes will end up with memories that focus more on the bad results of our failed attempts. Our minds are going to automatically store the most relevant information that we ‘need’. Not fate, mere survival instinct.
If we stub our toes, the pain response that results is going to tell us that stubbing toes is a bad thing. It’s akin to our nervous system alerting our lower brain functions to the fact that; ‘You can break bones that way. Broken bones can limit your movement. Limited movement can threaten your survival!’ Of course it’s not as complex as this, these are just necessary results of selective development.
The monkey that learns not to stub his toe has a higher chance of survival, therefore the monkey who’s nervous system tells his brain ‘it hurts’ and who’s brain stores that event with the appropriate ‘negative’ recollection of the stimulus is going to be more prone to avoid making that mistake twice. The same happens for positive recollections. The taste of the cookie is a good thought as is the feeling we got from social feedback that emotionally makes us feel good. The recollection of those two positive results will lead us to repeat them and maybe get us more cookies!
Some other factors that play a role are more complex in the examination of the nature of a ‘belief’ in fate or an understanding of the results of our willful choices and hard work. More specific to the failures themselves there are some other factors that may play a role in how we deal with them.
- Recalling the negative facets of our failures can lower our self image (of course recalling the positives of our successes can increase self-image also).
- Failures can also lead to regrets or guilt, especially when it may have effects on relationships we have with others socially or even to our own self-image as described above.
- Rationalizing about failures can help relieve some of that regret or guilt; “Well, it wasn’t completely my fault because…”
Considering these contributors as part of our more complex psychologies and combining them with false assumptions which overlook how our minds tend to predominately recall the most relevant stimuli from events instinctively (to improve our chances of survival) says a lot about the ‘desire’ to attribute things to mystical sources.
Rational or not, it can be very comforting to think that things are attributed to some kind of mystical ‘fate’ even if it is just a factor of how our brains recall the events we have lived through and our desires to want to be ‘guided’ to self-improvement.
Yeah, it would be nice to think that some well laid out plan placed certain lessons before me to teach me the things I ‘need’ to know to make me who and what I am. But it is far more reasonable to conclude that the nature of my own mind instead takes from the events that happen (resulting from those things I have already done, steps and changes to steps I make as a result of them, as well as whatever unrelated external circumstantial events come along only by pure happenstance) the lessons that I need to continue on, all the wiser for how they turned out on my behalf.