Thursday, March 17, 2011

Conscious decisions vs. the weight of circumstances

Maybe it's not a general phenomenon, but I have a tendency to want to think of human existence in terms of conscious decisions, of will-power, of human will. "If I work hard..." "If I stay focused on..." "If I decide to..."

I think that being a book person reinforces this, because books so often offer explanations for what decisions led to a particular outcome, explanations for why people make the decisions they do. It's the choices that are crucial. If there's a climactic battle at the end (can you tell I'm a fantasy lover?), we expect the outcome to hinge on the choices, whether of the leaders of each sides, of the lower officers, or of the common soldiers. If a freak mudslide wiped out one side, giving the other victory, or a storm sank one fleet and gave the other victory, in a novel we would feel cheated, even though exactly these sorts of non-human agents are, in the real world, the actual causes. Our satisfaction stems not from our sense of reality but from our sense of what we think reality should be.

And don't our religious traditions teach much the same thing? While Christianity, for instance, may ultimately boil down to one decision, our overall sense is that our eternal fates are decided by the sum of our actions, by the choices we make.

The thing is, it's not always so easy as that. In very many cases, we are inclined to recognize mitigating circumstances if we really look at it. We recognize, for instance, physiological changes that make a person either not responsible or less than fully responsible: dementia in the elderly, chronic pain, mental illness.

I was thinking about this in a rather different context the other day. The Monday before last, I started a new workout program. The first week was tough, but really good. I did all the workouts plus a couple other workouts. This week got off to a good start... and then Monday evening I started to feel congestion in my head and a sore throat. I hated it. I've been there before: the November before my wedding I was doing the Lean and Hard workout, starting the fifth of six weeks when I got sick. I had been seeing excellent results, but then I couldn't do it for a week and a half and it just threw me completely off (Thanksgiving and then Christmas didn't help either!). An intense workout program is hard enough when it's just you fighting against your own desire not to workout or your own desire to eat chocolate chip cookies instead of a healthy, well-balanced meal. But when circumstances make it really hard to follow through, what's a mere mortal to do?

Tuesday morning, I woke up with a vague sense of congestion and a clear sense of sore throat, but get up I did, at 5:40, to head to the gym. I did my workout, but I felt exhausted the rest of the day. When I came home, I had to nap before going back to work for an evening on duty--which brings me to another point. Tuesday was, from a weather standpoint, a lousy day: rainy and cold. It can be hard to feel good on a day like that, and I didn't. But then Wednesday and today came along: sunny and in the 50s and then 60s. Spring had sprung. And even though I got up at 5:40 on Wednesday, even though I felt more congested and my throat was more sore, I spent most of the day feeling pretty darned good. When I came home, I didn't need a nap because I felt great.

But there it is again: forces outside my control influencing me. I didn't choose for it to be a sunny day, but the fact that it was made it better, despite my sinus whatever feeling worse. And the same was true today. I went to tennis practice, I spent an hour and a half doing yoga, and I felt awfully good. Strange but true: I felt congested at the beginning of my yoga workout and I felt congested again after it was over, but during my workout, my sinuses felt pretty darned good.

Now, was my willpower involved here? Sure. I could have not gotten up Tuesday. I could have indulged in feeling bad and feeling sorry for myself yesterday and today. But I was also helped out by a bit of good weather.

1 comment:

  1. C. S. Lewis talks about this phenomenon somewhere, perhaps in Mere Christianity -- how much of a role our digestion, the weather, and other circumstances can play. Add in such things as hormones and brain chemistry and medications and nutrition...