Originally posted on 05-29-07:
I finally finished nibbling away at Po Bronson‘s book, What Should I Do With My Life? and I think this post may finish my comments on it.
There is a story near the end about a guy whose brother committed suicide, his feeling of guilt as a result, and Po’s sharing with him his own feelings of guilt. When I mentioned it to Eve, she said, “I remember it—don’t remind me.” It’s residue had not been particularly positive for her.
I have written so much about guilt in The Journal, and in more condensed form in the essay on Free Will, and talked about it in the podcast series, Bare Brains, that I fear I may have flogged it to death, but in case you haven’t been exposed to any of that, here’s a short version:
First I should mention the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, which have a long record of effectively dealing with guilt, particularly the 8th and 9th steps: “8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. 9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” The previous steps are a necessary preparation for these, otherwise you’re likely to do more harm than good.
Toward the end of my nine-year sojourn in AA, I began to have a somewhat idiosyncratic approach to the idea of apologizing for wrong behavior, based on the realization that no one is really in control of their thoughts or actions. While it is true that the things I do and say are attributable to me as agent—as the body/mind that performs the action—it is also true that those behaviors are the unavoidable outcome of the interaction of my particular physiology with the events that have shaped me. My brain is constantly calculating its next action, given its history, but I have very little awareness of how those calculations are done or what their outcome will be until I find myself thinking, saying, or doing something.
There has been a long and continuing debate about whether there is any entity in the brain that can act independently of anything that has ever happened to it, and I come down on the side that says the idea is nonsensical, along with Albert Einstein, Marvin Minsky, Douglas Hofstadter, Michael Gazzaniga, most neurophysiologists, and a host of other clear thinkers.
This lack of free will does not eliminate the assigning of responsibility to persons for their actions—the functioning of society requires this assignation—and if learning to accept it has not been part of our training, we will be retrained, or failing that, restrained.
Given all that, making amends to people in the tradition of AA, and apologizing, takes on a different light. If I find that my actions have caused someone harm, I make it right if it involves property damage or some such, in the sense of an obligation for the privilege of participating in society. If it is appropriate, I say to the individual involved, “The person I was at the time had no choice but to do what he did, and I regret the occurrence of that event. I have become a different person, one who would make every effort to avoid such an event, if possible, and I hope I am never associated with a recurrence.” Hopefully I am capable of expressing this with sincerity and humility—I generally don’t try unless I honestly feel that way.
The more such an interpretation of human behavior becomes a habit, the more general its application. I don’t see anyone else as being in control of their behavior, any more than I see myself in control. Consciousness allows us to watch the events of our lives unfold, without giving us any control over them.
With this approach, guilt and pride don’t make much sense. While I don’t feel guilt, I still feel regret over my misdeeds, and while I don’t feel pride, I still am made happy by my successes. I think there is a substantial difference between this and traditional interpretations.
When I got to the last two lines of this book, the point of view that has evolved in me gave them a little twist. Po wrote, “I used to want to change the world. Now I’m open to letting it change me.”(p. 365)
It is possible for the actions of individuals to change the world—Po gives many examples of this—but in my view, all change is part of a much larger process. The world changes all of us, and as a result, our actions produce other changes, and those changes produce changes in us, and on and on. While discrete individuals can be associated with specific events, their is no real beginning to the story, and no end.
I cannot “let” the world change me—it changes me will I or nil I—but I can recognize that being changed is the nature of my existence, and that recognition is a gift from the world that I greatly appreciate.
This Water Falls of Its Own Free Will