Empowered to Change
Choosing the Direction of Our Lives
BY: T. F. Murphy | December 2014 (edited August 27, 2022)
We can change; it's just not easy. Forces pull us in many directions, usually following a set trajectory. We can adjust but must do so with confidence and skill.
Freedom of choice is simplistic and joyous in sound, beautiful in moralistic rhetoric, the foundation of criminal punishment and justice, and the power behind well-being; yet complexity blurs the simplicity of right and wrong and muddies our efforts—some inflexible guides is essential; but too many blinding, creating bias.
The energy to motivate change emerges from experience and personal examinations, challenging destructive habits, and detecting deceptive thoughts; we gather information and improve responses (ideally). But futures are not set—unchanging. Our actions play out in the dynamic happenings of life, creating wiggle room for subjective interpretations that drift from realistic perspectives. Growth isn’t simply a choice. Purposeful behaviors impact futures but never eliminate unknown interfering elements.
We can lock our doors, install an alarm and still be burglarized. We can stay in groups, avoid dangerous areas and still suffer cruelty and violence. Misfortunes randomly strike; we can wisely avoid some calamities through wise choices but painfully encounter others. Life is unpredictable.
The forces determining our lives scatter across both internal and external fronts; some elements determined by choice, other forces from the choices of others. We are an infinitesimal part of a massive universe pushed and pulled by countless contributing factors, most unknown to our understanding, impacting our lives in unimaginable ways. Life is only partially predictable.
Reality of Life (Pain)
Other people’s choices cause pain—undeserved pain. We’re not responsible for every personal hardship. Dumb luck plays a role. Our attitude—positive or negative—changes the feelings of experience but doesn’t eliminate misfortune (bad things may still happen).
Cognitions create and magnify feelings, soothing over-active emotions or igniting small emotional stirs, but thoughts alone don’t negate biologically programmed reactions—the reactions that evolved for survival. We respond emotionally to loss, fear, and injustice; no matter how our conscious mind colors it, the underlying emotional reaction exists first. The mind may be trained to dismiss some of the emotional alarms for action to our benefit and destruction.
Intermingled with the kind and compassionate are the evil and selfish. Social causes—ghosts in the nurseries, crumbling social structures, drugs and mental illnesses—underlie individual behaviors hurting communities and the individuals. People lacking empathy act cruelly causing pain. We may mitigate anger through acknowledging the complexity of causes; but we are still hurt when kicked, robbed or cheated.
We don’t deserve to be victimized, suffering from the hands of another, even when their behaviors may partially be blamed on deeper societal ills. Our bad experiences remind us of the unfairness of chance, whether through intentional assaults, narcissistic betrayals or simply the misfortune of disaster. Many ills are outside of our control, spurning anxiety with their reminders of our inherent vulnerabilities to mortality.
Powerful cognitive efforts manipulate feeling of emotion, perhaps completely dismissing the underlying stirs for action; but momentary mental deceptions, leading away from reality, come at a high future cost. A house of comfort built on a crumbling foundation of falsehood condemns the structure to eventual fall. Reality can be ignored but not dismissed.
"We may mitigate anger through acknowledging the complexity of causes; but we are still hurt when kicked, robbed or cheated."
Emotions and Change
Our brains massage and edit reality, presenting a coherent narrative to consciousness. This process creates continuity to experience, skewing reality to productively fit our purpose.
Effective shaping reality through skilled use of counterfactuals, however, doesn’t abandon reality altogether. While felt experience plays out in the mind, the subsequent behaviors, character traits and relationships play out in reality. Although we may justify meanness, addictions, and disabling character flaws through a variety of defense mechanisms to pacify the mind, relieving anxiety, the reality of our actions still impact the world (not our interpretations of the world), destroying futures, widening disconnections.
Gentle justifications for poor work performance may soothe anxiety but the reality of subpar work may still get us fired.
With reality comes pain but acceptance of pain is necessary. The presence of anxiety motivates planning, anger encourages action against injustice, guilt spurs self-reflection, and sadness modifies behaviors to prevent future losses. While painful, these emotions play a pivotal role in human development, demanding attention to meaningful events, and gathering wisdom for future interactions.
When we ignore emotions and justify triggering behaviors, we miss essential information needed for change, failing to gleam the gifts of wisdom, and condemning our selves to reliving the painful lessons.
While we may be innocent, righteously entitled to blame unjust circumstances, we invite repeated victimization (through our inaction). Unchosen and undeserved punishments are not necessarily unavoidable. The pain from these experiences offers wisdom needed for avoidance in the future.
Being an innocent victim, although unfair, must be combated with action—not mournful submission. By accepting victimhood, we subconsciously perpetuate unfairness—a self-fulfilling prophesy. Victimhood becomes part of our identity. We helplessly submit to the destroying villains.
Usually, we’re not helpless; there are avenues of escape.
Change is Difficult
When others’ behaviors cause suffering, we easily miss the subtle roles we contributed to perpetuating of the unhealthy cycle. We don’t overtly choose to suffer; but often silently consent to the suffering. Sometimes the destroying villains disrupting our lives are obvious—an abusing spouse. Other times the villain, hiding in the shadows of our heart, goes unrecognized. Villains such as sloth, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and pride may poison motivations, leading us down the destructive paths of unfulfilling futures.
We hope for brighter tomorrows. We magnify our temporary escapes from monotony as long-term growth, delaying more effortful work. But life has an ebb and flow of good and bad. A string of enjoyable days may signal change but likely is simply a mirage—the magical thinking of a justifying mind. Just as the hull of the infamous Titanic momentarily righted itself once the submerged regions of the vessel ripped free; but the broken remains of the ship quickly took on water and sank with the rest. We also ignore signs of impending doom because our sinking ship momentarily appears to float.
The grueling task of change redirects life; while trajectories, habits, and human nature continue to pull. The appearance of momentary escape shouldn’t be confused with lasting freedom. The thorns of humanity continuously poke and puncture our tender wills. Hidden inclinations of sloth, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and pride reassert dominance when left unchecked.
No mandatory anger management class, no insightful book, or fabulous dreams can force change. Many emerge from exposure to wisdom no better than they were before. Failure to create changes isn’t an indictment against the wisdom but testifies of the complexity of human nature.
Be compassionate and forgiving for wrongs experienced and wrongs committed. We all have plenty of both. Understand that living is occasionally painful. We must make difficult decisions and follow with courageous effort to change the unhealthy reoccurring events. Focus on the freedoms you still have. Seek the support you need. Find hope from the millions that have escaped similar circumstances, and courageously moved forward.
We can’t shape the future until we trust that we have the power to do so. Empowerment, the freedom of choice, begins with belief in our self. The molding of our lives is a dynamic process that we contribute to, rather than completely control. But we have the ability to change. This mountain can be climbed and conquered.
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