Coded gray.

Thursday 11 August 2005

Screenshot anime Midori no Hibi

Pic of the day: Sometimes you can just decide to do something, and then go right ahead and do it even though it is hard. Especially if you think something good will come from it. But sometimes you can't. What's with that?

Willpower revisited

It was in the advertisement for a game I saw it: "You can do anything, but you can't do everything." This should make some people stop and think, which is generally a good thing. What is the difference between everything and anything? Obviously there is an element of this in real life too: There is an astounding range of choices you can make, but many are mutually exclusive. You can only have so many careers in your lifetime, only so many spouses, only so many religions etc.

But also in our day to day life there are limits. Obviously the time is too short to do everything. But sometimes the time is there and we don't do it. We don't do the things we thought we would do, and then perhaps a little salt in the wound: Instead we do things we did not think we would do. What is this?


I believe the current humans are souls, balancing the flesh and the spirit. Or in more scientific terms, we are balancing our raw instincts against culture, creativity and reason... the higher faculties of the mind. If either side gains full control, bad things are likely to happen, since our higher faculties aren't all that high and may not be able to take adequately care of the body and offspring. Or at least they weren't until recently, and I think most people still would be hard pressed to live by logic and insight.

When mankind was young, it was almost certainly not like this. The instincts reigned supreme. Without language, abstract thinking had to start anew in each generation, and it would not come far in the short lifetime most had in the wild. Luckily instincts aren't all that bad. Each species has instincts fitting for it, and human instincts too were doing alright. For instance we have a strong instinct that bids us to not kill or maim defenseless members of our own species. In a few persons of each generation this instinct is missing, but for the most part it needs to be overridden by strong culture in order to make men into warriors. Even in the trenches of the Great War, the statistics indicate that a large number of the soldiers actually aimed beside the enemy most of the time, trying to scare them away rather than kill them. Only when gripped by the desperation of seeing their own friends dead did most actually aim to kill. So a time when men were ruled by instinct was perhaps not as hellish as some dark spots of civilization, ironically.

In the future, I expect the surviving humans to be ruled mainly by the spirit, by the higher functions. In the more interwoven society to come, it will be possible to know what to do consciously in any given situation, and act accordingly. The abundance of knowledge, covering the whole world like water fills the sea, will lead to early understanding, and understanding will lead to insight, and insight will lead to wisdom. And wisdom, far from being a nebulous religious concept, is the art of understanding one's own way. To know what to do and what to say, when we need it. Who hasn't known exactly what to say, only a few minutes after it is too late? Wisdom is to know the right thing at the right time.

In this time and age, when few of us have wisdom and then only intermittently, the soul struggles to balance our various needs. Some things appeal to us in the short run, remnants of instincts or habits that are useful in other situations but not right now. We call this temptations, and all people have them. It is not reserved for religion. Scientists who test temptations use snacks and students. (The snacks are the temptations, the students are the test subjects.) They have found that prolonged exposure erodes willpower. This is hardly a new discovery, although it has been hard to measure before. Also adding more than one temptation at a time makes each of them more efficient. Furthermore, distracting the test subject makes it likely that the temptation takes control.


C.G. Jung firmly believed that willpower has expanded with increasing civilization. He studied ancient history and also lived for a time with a "primitive" tribe, learning how they handled life. He found that they often used elaborate rituals where a modern man would simply exert his willpower. This also goes well with the fact that children are great fans of ritual. Who hasn't known a small child who cannot sleep without some particular actions that must be done in just the right sequence?

There are still some rituals in modern society, but they seem to be fading. For instance in most "primitive" societies there are extreme rituals that mark the transition from boy to man, or from girl to woman. A few generations ago here in northern Europe the church ritual of "confirmation" filled this role, although the ordeal was a lot milder, simply being required to demonstrate a certain amount of clerical knowledge in public and make a public promise. In my grandfather's youth, people were not supposed to have sexual intercourse until after they had gone through confirmation, which rhymes with its role as a transition ritual but hardly with its religious content. These days, the confirmation is merely an excuse to give the kids money. They don't need to prove themselves in any way, perhaps except the ability to wear formal clothing. Growing up is now a gradual process, and it's supposed to happen automatically.

Likewise wedding rituals have become simpler, to the point where many just sign a contract. Others skip the entire ceremony and just live together for as long as they both agree on doing so. In all fairness, those who go through the rituals tend to stick together for longer. But we see once again that rituals are losing their power over modern man. The individual is supposed to use their own judgment and exert their own will.

Jung thought that people had a "mental energy". (This is of course a metaphor ... it's not like you could put batteries up your nose to recharge your brain!) To overcome temptation and exert your will, you need to spend some of this energy. If your mental energy is too low for what you want to achieve, you need to resort to ritual. But modern society doesn't have the right toolbox. Our churches use rituals from the middle ages, their symbols don't come to life for modern people. If their willpower fails, where should they go?

Jung tried to help people make their own meaning from their dreams and other dialog with their subconscious. But this was hard work and in practice he would only be able to help a few cases at the same time. Much of what he wrote was aimed at helping people who wanted to do this on their own, people who were not so hard hit that they fell outside society and became "psychiatric cases". Alas, most of Jung's writing is dry and academic, even worse than this entry. Only his autobiography did I find easy and fun to read, although it was mostly about his inner life too. (Yes, I have taken a lesson from that.)


There is no real conclusion to this entry. There is no quick solution to the need for willpower in real life. You can reduce temptation by planning. You can strengthen your will by ritual and by combining forces with people you trust. I would say you can also expand your mental energy by practicing awareness, through meditation and through observing yourself in daily life. But it is all hard work. We simply don't get something for nothing. In the end we, as souls, must compromise. We must choose our dues to Earth and Heaven, body and spirit. This balance is clearly not the same for everyone. One day perhaps we may all be able to live in constant awareness, in constant wisdom, knowing the right thing and doing it without fail. But for most of us this is pretty far off. In the meantime, we try to use the tools we can find.

Yesterday <-- This month --> Tomorrow?
One year ago: Gaming for money
Two years ago: I have a fan!
Three years ago: Steatopygia
Four years ago: Growing pains
Five years ago: Payday! Payday!
Six years ago: Your wager with Death

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