More on Will Power and Your “Change Muscles”

A NY Times piece on will power  brings me back to one of my ongoing concerns:  the difficulty of change whether in matters large (race relations, greener living) or small (making better eye contact, cutting down coffee, pick your poison). The longer I hang around, the more I wonder if we don’t mismeasure the amount of life that’s  under the control of genetics, our biological heritage, instinct, call it what you will.  The piece is here, and I’m happy to see that experts in the field seem to support my “change muscles” hypothesis set forth in earlier posts.

Our lives may be a bit like the federal budget: After you take out all the committed spending on Social Security, Medicare, etc, there ain’t a whole lot of discretionary money left. The same may be true of our psyches: Once biological nature and long-engrained nurture are accounted for, the area left to what some call “free will” may be smaller than we think.

Which doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent– or, put another way, doesn’t mean we can navigate life happily without some belief that we are in fact “the captain of our fate,” as the old poem had it. Or, if not the captain, at least First or Second Mate, part of the (no pun) steering committee.

I’ve done a number of posts on the subject of change,  and after reflection and observation of myself and my fellow beings, I offer these tentative conclusions, which I’ll be happy to revise when the right  evidence appears:

*It’s best to view change as a rarity, not a common occurence.

* Be supportive of anyone’s hopeful talk about change, but don’t be at all surprised if the hopeful chat comes to nothing because most people are simply not going to exert the effort, and exert it long enough, to shift from A to B, much less Z.  Especially for anyone older than 25 or 30, the past is usually a preview of the future.

*Precisely because change is so hard and so rare, changes for the better should be celebrated. If someone has managed to shove the rock of inertia up the hill,  shake their hand and let them know you admire what they did.

*The bright side of this problem: Just as it’s hard to break a bad habit, it’s also hard to break a good one. A person who is generous and thoughtful at 35 is unlikely to turn cold and callous by 40.  The small minority who actually learn critical thinking and standards of evidence as young people will probably continue to be guided by those good habits of mind  throughout their lives. We can’t change our natures like we do our shirts, and that’s often a blessing.


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