Do you ever wonder why one couple stays together for 50 years, even if things are bad, and other couples give up within 6 months over petty nothings? Ever wonder why one man can get back up time and time again after failure after failure, never giving up, while other “wusses” can’t even take the slightest bit of struggle? Ever wonder why some people can be so disciplined and others can’t keep even the most simple things together?
I know I do. I think about it all the time. I watch my own will power at times fluctuate with the times. Sometimes I feel strong, able to take on the entire world. Other times, I give in with very little struggle. Sometimes I can tolerate near anything from another person and still forgive them, and other days even the tiniest thing can set me off. Some days I’ll work on a project all day long, non-stop. Other days I feel that depression creep in and think, “What is the use”.
I began to think that there has to be a pattern to all of this. It wasn’t random, I knew that much. I could tell it was highly tied to what I was thinking and what went on with my mind. But what were the core characteristics of mental strength? What determines how mentally strong a person will be, or how weak they will be? When will I be strong, and when will I be weak? And, what is this “mental strength” anyways? What are we even talking about?
Call it mental strength, psychological strength, will power, determination, tenacity, ability to endure, ability to stick with things; I don’t care what name you tact to it, that is the issue we’re talking about in this journal entry.
I’m going to talk about the origin of this will power. We’ll learn its core rooting, and why it changes based on varying circumstances. We’ll find out that it is not random and that it is completely predictable with the right knowledge.
II. Origin of Will Power and Toleration
Let’s begin our discussion with an example. Say a group of young men, all friends, decide one weekend to go for a hike in the woods. Let us also assume that all of these men are in nearly the same physical condition and have had similar training. Suppose these individuals have been hiking for some time and their legs begin to hurt. One of the men sits down and says, “I can’t go on. I’m finished. You guys go on without me.” The other men say, “You wussy. Get up, and let’s finish this hike!” The man sitting refuses to go on.
Is this man a “wussy”? Why did he quit and the others continue on? What gives the others determination to press onward, even though they are in pain, and why did the man sitting give in? What is the difference between the men who continued and the man sitting down?
Many would reply that there is no “why”. The man who sat down simply decided to sit down, and the others decided to go on. There is no more to discuss. The other men just had stronger “will power” to continue on even in pain, whereas the other guy was weak, and gave in under pressure of painful legs and feet.
There is something to consider here, however. Aren’t people at least somewhat predictable? Isn’t there at least some meaning to “personality”, “character”, “mindset”, etc.? If we are to take this view, that there is no reason “why” people do what they do, then we’re left with people exhibitting random assertions of free will. Completely unpredictable behavior.
People don’t seem to exhibit random “capricious jerks” when it comes to their decisions. People are not random. I can give a simple example that will show what I mean.
Say there is a devout Christian girl, who is very adamant about her religious convictions. I go up to her and say, “Hey, me and my buddies are going to perform some satanic witchcraft. We’re going to summon the devil, sacrifice this young girl we have here in the trunk, and throw some hexes on so and so. Care to participate?” I feel I have good reason to believe we’re going to receive a negative response. I can near guarantee you she will not come along.
How can I do this if people are just random assertions of free will? If she was random I suppose we could say that if this girl were placed in this situation 1000 times, we could expect that somewhere near 500 of the times she would come along and 500 times she would stay. But I can bet you that if you asked this girl 1000 times to come along, you’d likely find her deny you 1000 times as well.
My friend Greg and I oftentimes talk on this issue and I can remember him saying, “People can do literally anything, yet, they don’t.” He’s absolutely right. People are predictable and do seem to exhibit patterns of behavior.
But if they are patterned, what are we to say about free will? Does this leave us with determinism? Maybe this girl, because she was raised the way she was raised, had no choice in the matter. Maybe it was all due to her relationship with her parents, her family, the events that happened during her childhood, etc, which all combine together and make up the “reason” why this girl will not come with us.
I’m not here to fully discuss determinism, because I believe in freedom of will for many many reasons. It seems quite obvious to me that people can change. I’ve seen them change. I myself have changed. As Rocky says in Rocky IV, “We all can change!”. I also feel that I am the reason for this change. I chose to change. For now, that will have to suffice, as this article is about “will power”, not the power of matter and the laws of physics to control our destiny.
So how can we overcome this difficulty? How can someone exhibit patterned, predictable behavior without introducing determinism? The solution is not too terribly difficult. When studying behavior you find what I suppose we could call a “hierarchical decision model”. There is a web of interconnected decisions all ordered among themselves by priority. This is what I will henceforth call a “mindset”.
This conceptual definition makes mindsets sound complicated. They are nothing of the sort, as you will all know exactly what I’m talking about as I continue. Really all I mean is that people have things they want out of life, and they want some things more than they want others. These things are chosen, and people are in a pursuit of all kinds of different things.
I’ll give an example of this. For quite some time now I’ve considered moving to China and joining a Shaolin monastery. I’ve always wanted to learn Kung Fu, as it’s probably one of the most fascinating things in this world, at least, to me. I hate working, I hate business, and I hate computers.
Now I have other things which I’ve set higher priority than that, however, and these are what have kept me from joining. More important to me is learning what most people in this world call the “important” things of life. I continually study philosophy about God, I study different religions, I read history, and I study science, particularly related the universe. Understanding who I am, where I come from, and where we’re all going is, to me, the most important thing in the world. All else is rather petty. All else is lower priority.
Now I’ve heard in these Shaolin temples that part of the training includes slamming your head for many hours into sand bags in order to strengthen your head. This is literally the only thing I don’t like about their Kung Fu training. I’m sure I would refuse to do so if I attended their school. Why is this? Slamming your head into things damages your brain, and I need my brain to fully function in order to discover who I am, where I come from, and where everything is going.
Learning the things I wonder about takes higher priority than Kung Fu. It has nothing to do with me being a “wuss”. To me, Kung Fu is self-mastery, conquering your passions, and self-defense. I don’t care about being the ultimate fighter, or being able to take strong blows to the head. I’d rather take no blows to the head at all, and never deliver any blows to anyone else either. I’m a healer, not a killer. Part of why I’d be studying the art to begin with is to defend my head.
The same kind of deal is happening with the man hiking. He is not a “wuss”, he just has a different way he views life. Maybe he’s asking himself, “Why should I endure pain on this hike? I’m only out here to see a nice view from the mountain side, to feel the breeze, and get out of the house. The kids have been driving me nuts lately. I don’t care about reaching the top.” Then the other guys are saying, “We must make it to the top! We must conquer this mountain and tell our friends back at the office how we transcended the mountain!” What you have is two different mindsets toward hiking and the purpose of why they’re out there to begin with. It has nothing to do with “endurance”, “ability to take pain”, or “determination”. How much someone will endure, take pain, or stay focused on a project is based on this “mindset”, this hierarchical decision model, not vice versa.
It’d probably be good to futhur elaborate on all of this. Take my current life for instance. I mentioned my highest goal is to learn the “important” things about life. I want to understand why mankind is so messed up. I want to know why God would do things this way, as opposed to other ways. Let’s futhur elaborate my own mindset.
Everywhere I look nobody has time to learn these things. They’re all busy working all day, then coming home to the wife and kids, and between the work and the family they have no time for anything else. They never learn these things. They live life with a blindfold on. They wonder these things in the back of their mind their entire life, telling themselves that “one day” they’ll get around to figuring it out, but they’ll never figure any of it out. They’ll end up dying caught up in the day to day activities.
They’ll wonder why the wars happen and watch all the randomness of the news and have no idea what’s going on. They’ll have their vague sayings such as “the world is so messed up”, but they won’t know why it’s messed up, nor ever do anything to fix things. Things will just keep getting worse and worse until a revolution, or some other calamity. Then people like me, who understand things, write them a new constitution, a declaration of indepedence, etc, and the cycle starts over again. This new established good government slowly erodes away and is replaced with fascism. People like president Bush slowly steal our rights away from us, claiming they need to do so because of “terrorists”, but because people don’t even know or appreciate what they do have, they don’t care, and just let it happen.
The only reason I pursue business is because it is the only way to make lots of money and tell the world to leave me alone so I can study my books. I only ask for my books, food, basic mild entertainment, and minor things like paper, pens, etc. Sadly the only way I can do this is to do business, but, that’s how everyone else has chosen to make this world.
Sorry for the mild digression. You can see my own bitterness toward the world shining, but it will help you to understand me, and where any “will power” I may have comes from. Now back to our discussion. We’re talking about the tenacity of the will. How much do you think it takes for me to continue doing all this business stuff to make money?
What will determine, for me, how hard I work on these software projects, and how hard I continue working on any other business related thing is how much I believe it will get me to that place where I can be financially independent and live a rather modest lifestyle off the interest. And, I want this money so I can be free from working, and study the things I find important, and be left unhindered. If it ever starts to creep into my mind that these businesses are taking “too long”, and I’m not moving in the direction I need to be moving, you’ll find that I “change”. It no longer becomes “worth it”. The purpose of why I’m doing them to begin with is over. It is now a waste of time.
If say Greg was to come up to me and say, “Come on Jason. We need you to work 12 hours per day on these software projects! You’re being a wuss!” It has nothing to do with me being a “wuss”. What determines whether I will do so or not is whether I have a belief that it’s going to make the money. In fact, I want it all to be over as fast as possible. If this project can make me the money to buy my study, buy all my books I need for research, get me food, and keep me from wasting time in these stupid jobs, then I will put forth the effort.
Now I could change all of this entirely. Maybe I’ll read some book one day and the author will say, “All of this philosophy, science, law, etc., is confusion. It’s not worth knowing. Studying this stuff is a waste of time. You just need to live your life and enjoy yourself while you’re down here. Get yourself a wife and kids, get a house, and do what everyone else does.” But, I have not found a book which advocated a doctrine like that which has powerful enough arguments to convince me that I need to abandon my current pursuits.
My own mental struggles, when I lay down on the pillow at night is whether working on these projects are worth it. I see this project saying, “Jason, I need 6 months to complete, and need about 8 hours per day or your time.” I ask myself, “How likely are you to succeed? You better succeed! How I hate you. There’s always something like you popping up wanting my time! Wretched food! Wretched place to sleep and store my books! Why do I have to work so hard for so little! You better pay off!”
I know most people don’t share my goals, and that’s fine. I’m an advocate of freedom and do not in any way claim my way of life as ideal. Most people want a career, and a significant other. I don’t care about either. Some people, who don’t understand my goals and things I want out of life naturally find me strange. They see me doing this project and making good money, girls interested in me, and a good family. They wonder to themselves, “Why is he so mad! He’s doing so well! He’s ungrateful!”. But “doing well” is relative to the mindset (your personal goals), and we’ll have more to say on thankfulness in my next entry.
Before moving onto thankfulness, I’d like to make a mild digression into the emotions and how they tie to mindsets. Will power seems to go hand and hand with things like depression, anxiety, anger, fear, etc., that people oftentimes get confused about their emotions and where they’re coming from. I’ll only cover one emotion, however, and that is anger and irritablity. Most of us agree that it is a virtue if you are slow to anger. To understand this we need to understand where anger comes from to begin with.
Anger is also rooted in a person’s mindset. Anger comes into play when things get in the way of you achieving what you desire to do. I’ll give a few examples.
My mom used to frequently anger me, and I’d become quite irritable. I’d be in my room reading, and then she would pop open the door and say to me, “Jason, I need you to clean the kitchen.” Now for those of you who do serious study, especially when reading things like Freud, Sartre, or other deep material, you need silence, time to think and concentrate, and most importantly, NOT TO BE BOTHERED.
She would always be so insistent that it be done RIGHT THEN AND THERE. Just drop the book, drop what you’re reading, drop whatever and attend the petty stupid thing she has for you to do. After all, she was quite sure that if you didn’t do it right then, it wasn’t going to get done at all, as I was sure forget. (which was sometimes true).
To me, it had nothing to do with the kitchen. My mom learned this after a while when I talked with her about it. I told her, “lay a note out on the kitchen table, and put all that you need for me to do on that note. Whenever I’m done reading or taking a break, I’ll do all that’s on your list.” So we started doing that, and things were fine. Things got done, and she didn’t need to interrupt me.
What’s interesting about this is that if Mom was to approach me with these same tasks at at DIFFERENT TIME I would not be angry. What’s the difference? The current status I was in of my own projects. Normally whenever I leave my bedroom, I’m either on a break, or don’t have anything to do anyways. I’m in the current mode, “Break time. Get food. Take care of anything that needs done.” My goals currently are variable to accomodate for things like this. During this time, I’m not irritable at all. I’m just fine, and you can approach me with anything you like. You’ll also find with me that these periods have a certain lifetime. Mom can have as many little things for me to do as she wants and I won’t mind, but whenever I decide it’s time to get back to my work or studies, and this is normally after a 1 to maybe 2 hour break, I’m back to “don’t bother me.”
How irritable you will be to those you live with and spend time around will be similar. My own personal experiences have taught me that you need to allocate always at least some period of time per day where you EXPECT stuff you don’t care about and don’t want to do to happen. If your Mom or wife, or kids, or whoever is going to keep coming up to you everyday presenting this same difficulty to you, you might as well allocate time everyday to take care of it. I leave my room just waiting to run into Mom and the stuff to happen. I just wait for Dad to come up to me and say, “Today we’re mowing grass.” or “We’re bringing in wood today.” If it doesn’t, all the better, but when I have this mindset it doesn’t bother me when it does. In other words, I didn’t make plans, because it’d be unwise as I know they’d be thwarted if I did. I’d only make myself angry and unhappy.
I suppose we can say anger is an emotion. All other emotions work the same way. They all have to do with this mindset and are all reactions and adaptations of the body to what’s currently going on in relation to the mindset. Example: Rage is the body releasing all kinds of chemicals because a major goal of yours has been thwarted. Maybe you catch the wife you love with another man. This is your mind going through a major reconfiguration of goals as you’re going to have to change your entire life now. You’re going to have to find a new lover, get split from the kids you love in custody battles, find a new house, etc., and all this new work has been thrown on you by this woman. It’s like when my Mom thwarted my minor reading goals multipled times one million. Many, much higher level goals have been thwarted.
Unfortunately, as much as I’d like to talk about all the emotions, I’ll have to save that for another journal entry. It’s time to speak on thankfulness.
It’s oftentimes believed that thankfulness is a state of mind, almost like a light switch. A person chooses to be “thankful” today, and at other times unthankful. When a person turns on “being thankful” they’re now thankful for everything as long as they’re in this state of mind. I’m going to show that thankfulness isn’t a choice, nor a state of mind, but that it is a knowledge of what you currently have and understanding how things could be worse.
A perfect example of this thankfulness as a light switch is praying over food before you eat it. I live in a devout Christian home and before meals my father always says the blessing. It normally goes something to the effect of, “Thank you Lord for this meal. Bless it for the nourishment of our bodies, in Jesus name, Amen.”
Though there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the prayer, I simply find it empty. Thankfulness isn’t something you say, it’s something you understand. It’s a pursuit of knowledge and something you have to work at. If you haven’t studied history, and don’t know how past generations of people have lived before you, and how good the life you’re living now is, and all the work that went into bringing you the life you’re experiencing, you can say “thank you, thank you, thank you” until your lips fall off. You’re not really “thankful” in any worthwhile sense.
If you don’t understand the good you have in your life, there’s no magic switch you can flip to make it all become revealed to you. You’re going to have to study, to read, and learn from other people. You’re going to have to self-examine and think about your life and what you have.
I suppose it’d be inaccurate to say you have to read or study to learn the good that you currently have. Oftentimes I hear this statement, “You never know what you have until it’s gone” This proverb describes the life of the fool. The fool never learns what he has until it’s taken away from him. It’s the only way you can make him or her appreciate anything. They never learn from anyone else’s mistakes, never read, and never study. History is a foreign subject to them. These people go through life reinventing the wheel. They have ethical “revelations” about relationships, and the like, which Aristotle already discussed in far greater detail over 2300 years ago in his books on Ethics.
People like this ignore the foundation laid before them. They find their own plot of land and start over from scratch. By doing so they oftentimes fail tests when they’ve already been handed the answer key. You oftentimes hear people talking about life, and how horrible experiences happen to us in order to make us “tough”. After all, we oftentimes come out of the struggles stronger than when we went into them. This overall thinking says: if you go through enough problems you’ll eventually become thankful. You’ll finally learn what really matters, what to value, and what not to value. Who your real friends are and who are “the best friends money can buy”.
Really, what you need to understand is what causes the problem, how to protect yourself from it happening to you, and how to move forward, NOT focusing on being able to “take it” and being “tough”. Problems can go to hell. Well, that’s where they can go as far as I’m concerned. If you want to send yourself through life’s gauntlet and be “tough”, then best wishes to you. I’ll read about it, and when a wise man says, “I tried this and it went very badly. I did this instead and it works very well”, I’ll simply take heed to the advice, study it, find out why it works, and why the other way fails, and move on.
I think it’d be good to give an example of the ungrateful, unthankful, spoiled rich kid. We all try our best not to hate these people. Why is it that we hate them? They’re given so much more than us, and are given such wonderful beginnings but yet they don’t even know what they have. Instead of having to work for their car, pay insurance, pay for gas, or work a job, they’re given all these things instead. They’re not only given a car, but they’re given a Lexus or a BMW. They have access to parents who could help teach them all kinds of lesson in business and help them build up a company but they don’t utilize the resource.
You go to visit the rich kid and it comes to dinner time. A personal chef cooks the best food you’ve ever tasted. You see the snobby brat look at his father, in a rather pompous tone, and he says “The salad dressing is too sweet. Take this back. I won’t eat it” then he throws his little tantrum.
These kinds of people don’t understand what all they have, or they wouldn’t be this way. But how are they ever to learn and appreciate what they have? How are we to teach the rich brat to appreciate what he has?
In fact, this is a critcal question to ask yourself. We look at the rich kid and say to him, “You don’t know how good you have it! Quit complaining!”, but could the same thing be said for most all of us? How are we to know we’re not acting the same way and not even realize it?
As mentioned before thankfulness is understanding as to what you currently have, and knowing that things could be much worse. So there you are, right now, sitting in your chair in front of your computer, sitting in a classroom somewhere, or laying on your bed reading a book – how do you learn to appreciate what you have?
Your first thought may be to take your eyes off the computer screen, look at the room you’re in, maybe go to the kitchen, open up the refrigerator and simply “think” about these things. You’ll find this to be of little to no use.
You may recall an old journal entry of mine called ‘Noticing what’s worthwhile’. I talked about a day I was with my friend Greg, and we went to Alex’s pizza here in Rolla. They had installed a new sign hanging near their entrance, and I did not even notice it. In fact, it is IMPOSSIBLE to notice it if you do not have REASON TO LOOK FOR IT.
Another example. I was preparing to mow grass one day and I pulled up the lawn tractor I was on next to my Dad’s lawn tractor. Dad was off inside getting a drink. I sat there for near 15 minutes staring at Dad’s lawn tractor. I stared at the tractor, and didn’t notice anything. The tractor was what it was. It was just some object sitting there in front of me. Then Dad said to me from the back deck, “Is my tractor ready to go?” and it was almost instantly that I noticed, “Oh, your front tire is flat”, and “there seems to be a bolt missing from your seat”. I swear to all of you, I was looking right at the thing, the flat tire right in front of my face, and I didn’t see it.
These things were “revealed” to me once I was looking for “things that would cause the tractor not to function for Dad”. If you’re not looking for things, it is impossible to notice them. We only notice things in this life if we have a purpose to notice them. In other words, you will only acquire knowledge of the things around you if you have a purpose to do so. You have to be looking for something. Trying to accomplish something.
I’ll also tell you, you can’t fake it. You can’t say “I want to know about this chair”. There really has to be something about that chair that you’re truly interested in. You can’t deceive your own mind. “Oh, look at this little trinket here on my coffee table. I need to appreciate it.” Get real. Maybe if you’re a woman who is into interior decorating you may be able to justify some little porcelain nik-nak, and spend hours researching its creator, the company that makes it, etc., but as for most of us, we don’t care that much about it. We have other things we’d rather spend our time doing.
In my old journal entry I mentioned staring at a flower for several hours straight, as I wanted to notice as much as I possibly could about the flower. I’ll tell you all now, you can stare at the flower all day, and if you don’t have something you’re looking for, nothing new will be revealed to you. Take my word: You’ll waste your hours. Nothing will come of it. It’ll be like when I was staring at Dad’s lawn tractor. It is what it is.
My Dad once said to me that I wasn’t “observant”. He said, “Jason, you walk up the hill all the time on your walks. Didn’t you notice the log in so and so’s yard where they sit each day?” I said, “No”, and thought to myself, “I had no reason to be looking for such a log.” The next time I walked up the hill, the log made itself visible to me.
People have this Sherlock Holmes mindset, thinking you can just notice every little thing around you. You’ll only be this way if you have lots of reasons to be looking for lots of things. There’s an infinity of things to notice at any given time, the mind notices what you ask it to find for you.
This whole thing is core to being thankful because it is impossible to learn about the things around you until you make it a project for yourself to do so. Also, you can’t just look at your chair and say, “I want to know all there is to know about you”. You will get no answer. There is an infinite number of things to know about the chair and what it can do.
Pretty interesting dilemma isn’t it? All human knowledge is this way. The human mind is purpose driven. Without purpose it sits idle. Thoughts in the mind are all arranged via purpose. You’ll learn this from studies in memory, Sartre, or Freud’s psychoanalysis. It’s neat stuff.
Take something “annoying” such as mosquitos. If the person has a high priority goal of self-preservation and paranoid about anything sucking blood out of them, they won’t even be able to enjoy a summer afternoon outside. Their mind will be continually diverted searching for mosquitos on their body. Other people, who aren’t so conscious of these things (due to their mindset toward their body) don’t care so much and probably won’t notice the mosquitos unless they bite pretty hard when they sink in. Also, if you see a dangerous situation unfold, such as someone coming into the park where you’re walking shooting a gun, you’ll find you’re no longer conscious of the mosquitos biting you, as your mind is now directed to higher goals of keeping yourself from getting shot.
So one core problem to thankfulness is that to acquire the knowledge you’re wanting you’re going to have to know what to look for to even see it! But there’s another question to ask yourself as well.
Issac Newton has his famous quote, “If I had seen futhur it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” I think most of us stand on many great men’s shoulders and don’t even know it, because we have on our own blindfold of apathy.
Now we mentioned earlier it seems a virtue to be thankful. I say this depends on how far we take it. All of us know that life is short, and that you don’t have time to study every single thing out there. If you’re wanting to be truly thankful for everything, you’re going to have to study all the works of each scientist, inventor, philosopher, historian, great thinker, etc. Goodness! Who could do such a thing! That’s impossible.
If everybody tried to be thankful for everything in the full ideal sense nobody could ever effectively build off the work of the ones before them. We’d limit mankind’s progress because we’d all spend our time studying mostly the old works of antiquity as there’s so much to read it’d take most of our lifetime to understand just the old works, much less make it up to modern times. Also, as time went on, it’d become harder and harder to “catch up”. Eventually knowledge and progress would stagnate because we’d be limited by our own lifespan.
This is the “one man army” approach to life. Trying to be thankful for everything requires you to be super-human. You can’t know everything, so therefore you can’t be thankful for everything. If we all lived this way there’d be no societal roles. It’s better, because of our own limitations as humans, that we each specialize in our own field and become experts at what we do. It’s fine to try to lightly study other subjects to get an idea what they’re all about, but overall you’re going to have to focus in on one thing and stick with it if you’re going to be any good.
So I suppose it’s time to put back on the blindfold of apathy, and just pursue what you want out of life, and not worry if you’re thankful about everything, or not, because it’s impossible to be so anyways. When you turn on your iPod, don’t worry if you don’t understand “why” it works, the electronic jargon, and all the physics and complications it took to make the device. Just play your music and go for your jog.
I think most of us understand this dilemma, and is why we’ll take a “Thank you. You do good work” as enough praise, even though the majority of the time, the people saying we’re doing good work don’t understand even 1/10th of the work that went into building the device. Maybe this is why you can say, “Thank you Lord” in your prayers and he accepts them? I suppose I better not speak for God – you’ll have to inquire him on that one.