Monkey Traps: Self-Imposed Snares
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | April 2018
We have freedoms of choice, deciding how we will act and where to focus our objectives. We can't, however, choose the conditions for those rewards.
We still get stuck. Armed with the greatest cognitive machinery known to the history of the world, we continue to do stupid things, seemingly turning theories of choice utility on its head. We act harmfully, destroy futures and then pretend we had no choice. Life is complex and each moment fraught with unknown opportunities and dangers. Naturally we routinely err in judgment, go left when we should have gone right, stop when we should have continued, and curiously explore when we should have run like hell. Mistakes are inevitable; and forgivable. But what is baffling is our repeated failures, grasping onto behaviors that are harmful, and continuing to do the same darn things that we have enough cognitive power to accurately predict will punish with unwanted consequences. We get trapped and can’t seem to free ourselves even when the path to liberty is obvious.
In Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes “the old South Indian Monkey Trap.” The trap is constructed of a hollowed coconut chained to a post. A small hole is drilled allowing an open hand to reach into the coconut for the tempting contents (rice). The hole, however, isn’t large enough to free a closed hand gripping the goodies. The monkey reaches in but cannot free himself from the simple devise without relinquishing hold on the reward.
Sitting in the comfort of our padded chair, we chide, “let go of the rice dumb monkey.” With all our magnificent brain power, we often act with the same foolishness, chasing present pleasures, knowing the hurtful consequence but continuing to destroy our lives. We can’t let go of the rice.
Whether it is a loaded needle, perpetual procrastination, or continuous angry exchanges with a spouse, we know these actions interfere with our rich desires for a better future.
The stoics simplify the matter:
“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” – Epictetus
If we want to be free, we must let go. There is no other way. We can’t dictate all the circumstances; we can’t force blessing without the necessary sacrifices. We must know the laws upon which the consequences are predicated and then act upon those laws.
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