Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Island Within

A couple of weeks ago, I heard about an interesting experiment. The researchers took some rats and divided them into two groups. Rats in both groups were individually placed in a tank of water that had been made opaque by adding milk, so the rats couldn't see what was in the water.

For one of the groups, however, there was a kind of "island" in the tank: a raised section of the bottom that was high enough that the rats could place their hind feet on it, to get some rest from swimming. The other group was in a tank with no island; they had no place to rest.

In a relatively short amount of time, the "island" rats learned to swim straight for the island. The control group, of course, just flailed wildly, trying to stay above water. Then came the experiment's payoff: both groups of rats were individually placed in a tank with no island, and the amount of time it took them to give up and sink beneath the water was measured. (They were, of course, promptly rescued by the scientists.)

The result? The "island" rats lasted almost twice as long as the control rats, swimming frantically in search of the island they knew must be there - an island that really only existed within them.

So, the part I find compelling is this: sometimes it's better to believe a false good thing, than to believe a true bad one. One imagines the rats thinking, "I know that island is here somewhere! Just a little bit more and I can rest... just a little bit longer now..."

Of course, there are also true good things, and false bad ones in this world. The islands within us may be places of fear or sorrow that we constantly swim away from, even when they never existed at all. Indeed, we so often live on these future islands we fear or yearn for, that we scarcely notice the water we're treading in right now.

The Content of Your Mind is the Quality of Your Life

About a year ago, my wife and I signed a contract for a roofer to replace our house's roof, damaged by last year's hurricanes. A year and several thousand dollars later, we still don't have our roof finished, as the job became unprofitable for the roofer, who therefore has no incentive to finish it. We've spent so much time worrying and stressing about this, and wondering what we can do about it.

But just a few days ago, it occurred to me for the first time that maybe we've been spending so much time trying to swim away from an island of fear, that it never occurred to us the worrying is much worse than the things we've been worrying about. We don't actually have any roof leaks right now - that we know of, anyway. Hurricane season is over. The worst that's likely to happen right now is that we might have to hire somebody else and waste several thousand dollars.

Sure, that stuff's all bad, but the worrying has been much worse, in terms of quality of life. Those things, if they happen, will only happen the once, but our worrying has been weekly and sometimes daily, for most of the year! In retrospect, I wish we'd just hired someone else months ago; the quality of life improvement would've been more than worth it.

So, for the first time, I acquired a personal perspective on that old saw about the coward dying a thousand deaths, and the brave man only one. It doesn't matter how hard you swim away from the island, it still remains within you. But if you cross over the island, you'll leave it behind you when you go. As the saying goes, you can touch a thistle and it pricks you, but grasp it boldly and the spines crumble.

So, it's also literally true what Bobby McFerrin sang so many years ago:

In every life you got some trouble,
When you worry, you make it double.

Except that next it's triple, then quadruple, quintuple, and so on, each and every time you worry. And it's an even worse ratio if the worrying is more painful than the actual thing you're worrying about!

My spirits buoyed by this insight, I found myself thinking... what if you could turn it around? If your life experience can be so thoroughly overwhelmed by worry about negative things, could you equally overwhelm it with positive ones? In other words, what is the opposite of worry?

The Opposite of Worrying

Are you thinking about it? Wouldn't it be cool to know what it is? Don't you wish I'd tell you? Are you looking forward to finding out? Have you guessed it yet?

That's right: it's anticipation. I probably wouldn't have thought of it myself, if I hadn't been talking with my wife about Christmas presents the night before, just after she'd been watching a "Queer Eye" episode where they helped a guy give his fiancee a surprise wedding, of all things.

Now, I don't know about you, but I winced as soon as I heard this concept. "Are they nuts?" I said. "A lot of women have been looking forward to their wedding almost their entire lives. They're going to rob her of weeks of anticipation and obsessing over every detail." (And yes, the fiancee definitely looked like she'd have been a lot happier with more advance notice.)

Anyway, after that we talked briefly about Christmas presents, and I was thinking about how my wife loves to obsess over what a present might be, which is why I usually try to tease her a little bit ahead of Christmas or her birthday with impossible hints and enigmatic clues that she has no chance of figuring out. From experience, I know that she loves the anticipation far more than the momentary enjoyment of the actual presents.

So the next day when I thought about the worry equation, it pretty quickly came to mind that the opposite of worry -- in content, not structure -- is anticipation. When you anticipate a thing, you follow the exact same structure as worry: you imagine something you think might happen, and then feel how you think you would feel if the real thing happened.

So, whether the thing you're imagining is good or bad, the result of doing it repeatedly is to magnify the effect of the experience on your life, if only because of the repetition.

But that doesn't entirely explain it, because the truth is that you're not actually responding the way you would if the real thing happened. When real bad things happen, we normally just get focused on fixing them. And when real good things happen, it's quite nice, to be sure, but it's nothing like the ecstasy or fervor of some good anticipation!

The secret, I think, is that when we imagine the future -- whether good or bad -- we leave out a significant amount of context. We see only the bad thing or the good thing itself, floating like an island in the oceans of our consciousness. We don't see ourselves fixing a problem, we just see the problem itself. We don't look at the drawbacks or limitations of an anticipated future either, like kids not thinking beforehand about having to clean up all the wrapping paper and boxes on Christmas day.

Not that that's a bad thing, mind you, at least where anticipation is concerned. I've spent too much of my life avoiding good things in order not to have to clean up after them, metaphorically speaking. It's just that I'm realizing now that all those people babbling about "it's the journey, not the destination" actually have a much bigger point than I had previously been aware of.

Small Goals Have No Power To Move Men's Hearts

You see, big goals are useful because they give you something powerful to look forward to for a long time, not because their momentary result is so valuable. You can work for a lifetime and never actually achieve your goals, yet nonetheless have a wonderful life in the process. (For example, it's unlikely that any golfer will ever shoot a perfect game, nor any batter achieve a perfect 1.000 average, but that doesn't make anybody quit playing golf or baseball.)

Paul Graham advises that, in general, we should all work on the hardest problems available to us, in the fields we believe we can make a contribution to. I think that this is true, for no other reason than that it's the what makes the most rational sense for improving the quality of your spiritual and emotional life, regardless of whether you actually solve the problem or not.

The flip side of anticipation, you see, is that it supports involvement in what you're doing and how you live your life. It gives you a chance to see the island and to be thoroughly invested in your swim towards it. No mere amusement or pleasure is a substitute for involvement, and games are only fun when they capture enough of your attention to make you invest yourself in them this way.

Before my 2.0 upgrade, I mostly feared such involvement, because the idea of losing always seemed worse than the idea of not playing. And to the extent that I understood the nature of anticipation and the idea of "the journey, not the destination", I rejected them as a kind of cheat or self-delusion.

By now, however, it has become clear to me that appropriate self-delusion isn't just a good idea, it's pretty much a necessity for actually accomplishing anything! Sure, you can go too far with it (cough George Bush cough), but what can't you go too far with, really?

On the other hand, self-delusion is a relative concept. The truth is that the messages our senses receive are always subject to interpretation. What we think an event "means" is inherently delusional, in the sense that our interpretations were never reality to start with. Does a problem in the middle of your attempt to do something "mean" the effort is doomed to failure? That you should try harder? That you should think smarter? Every answer to the question of what an event "means" is ultimately a delusion!

So, to the extent that we assign the meanings, we control the meaning and quality of our lives, in an emotional and spiritual sense at least. I'm not talking here about trying to control the behavior of the universe through thought or creative manifestation or any of that stuff; I just mean that what you think about and how you do it will entirely determine how you feel about your life. That may in turn cause you to do things differently, for better or worse, but that's beside the point; your quality of life was already affected by your thoughts before you ever acted on them!

Is Anything Really Worth Worrying About It?

It's easy to shrug this idea off; I was first exposed to it maybe 25 years ago, when I first read Maxwell Maltz' "Psycho-Cybernetics". But it was just intellectual knowledge, something that became part of my consulting repertoire, not something I really connected with or lived.

But if you can make this a part of your understanding of life now, then you can really feel how worrying saps the life out of you piece by piece, and you can become aware that the worrying is nearly always worse than whatever you're worrying about. And even if it isn't to start with, it will be as soon as you worry about it enough times! So if you can make this a part of your experience -- not just your knowledge -- then you will be in a position to make a very real improvement in your day-to-day quality of life.

As for me, I'm now thinking about how I can use anticipation to make additional improvements. The trick seems to be that you need something you really believe will or can happen, but it doesn't necessarily need a concrete time frame to happen in. And it's helpful if it's connected to the processes of your life, so that you can experience at any moment a connection to that dream and believe you're moving towards it.

Thus, the secret of successful people everywhere is that they actually reverse the usual way of looking at reality. Instead of considering the "real" world to be the fixed and unchanging truth, they realize that the only place where truth is fixed is inside us. It's only our external reality that moves from day to day, not the constant compass of the soul. Magnetic north will jitter and shift as you move about the globe, but true north is always in your heart.

So build as you will,
your castles in air;
as long as there's room
for an island beneath.

And although you'll still swim
through the thick and the thin,
your life's really lived
on the island within.