Friday, September 30, 2011

Another Failed New Year's Resolution

I have been feeling remorse or regret the last two months.  I succeeded in my New Year’s resolution all the way until the end of July.  Then I fell off the wagon.  Not in the usual sense.  But I failed.  I couldn’t carry it through.  And I didn’t think I set the bar too high.  I thought it a simple, but deeply important task.  I was going to remember and name one person each day of the year who has had an important positive impact on my life.  I would write their name in my pocket calendar, one each day.  Pretty simple.  I am over half a century old.  In that time, surely there are three hundred sixty-five people in this non-leap year that I could name.  Of course I know the names of three hundred sixty-five people.  But these had to be people who made a positive impact on me.  I got to two hundred twelve: thirty-one in January, March, May and July; twenty-eight in February; thirty in April and June.  Then I ground to a halt.  Actually it was grinding to a halt starting in May.  Getting through June and July was pretty tough.  By the end of July, I was stuck, couldn’t go on, fell off the wagon of my resolution.

January was easy.  I began with family, my dad on the first, my mom on the second, my wife on the third, my children on the fourth and fifth.  I named folks who have had a deep impact on my character, personality and maturity.  These included close friends, and spiritual, intellectual, and coaching leaders who contributed much to my growth as a person.  I identified brothers, sisters, their spouses and children.  I identified team mates and teachers from college.  By February I was reflecting on friends from high school, almost all of whom I have had almost no contact with since graduating from high school.  They probably, most of them, don’t remember me, or if they could if prompted probably wouldn’t unless prompted.  I also was getting on to students of mine for whom I had some mentoring role in their lives, with the natural consequence that I was mentored by them as well.  In March I was on to colleagues I have had, few of whom I was close with, but all of whom I had cordial relations with and all of whom challenged me to think deeper or more carefully.  By April I was getting on to people that made a generally positive impact on me, but for whom I had, shall I say, less warm feelings.  Still, in April there were several named toward whom I have very warm feelings. In April, I had to start digging deeper into my memory.  I began to recall other high school classmates, elementary, junior high, and high school teachers that were good for me and to me.  In addition, having moved to a new area of the country just nine months previously, I was now meeting new people who were beginning to impact me, had been very kind to me, were beginning to welcome me into their lives.

I was starting to think of people who have impacted me but they would have never known it.  For example, I named some living authors of books I had read, whose words and thoughts made a very deep impact on me, some of whom I have met (David James Duncan, Julia Annas, Martha Nussbaum, Nick Smith, Mark McPherran, Nick Wolterstorff, Richard Mouw, Al Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Alasdair MacIntyre, Ed Dobson, among others) but most of whom I have never met in person (Donald Miller, Philip Yancey, Anne Lamott, Rob Bell, Saul Kripke, among others).  By May and June I was naming dead authors, only one of whom I had spent some time with before they died: Flannery O’Connor, C.S. Lewis, Gregory Vlastos, R.M. Hare (the one I spent time with), Ludwig Wittgenstein, Donald Davidson, G.E.M. Anscombe, J.L. Austin, Bertrand Russell, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Rene Descartes, among others.

Clearly, I was getting desperate.  I began to expand my criteria for “an important positive impact on my life.”  I began to include those who had a positive impact by being an example of the kind of person I did not want to become: an unhappy and mean-spirited junior high teacher; a closed-minded, dogmatic and authoritarian pastor.

And now that I am thinking about it, I am beginning to recall more.  I am going back to the beginning of August and starting to add more names.  As well, I am including people whose names I can’t recall, and maybe never even learned: the eighty year old mailman we had in Toledo, the UPS delivery guy (was it Steve?) for our neighborhood in Toledo; Tim and Clyde from Nashville, gentlemen African-American waiters twenty years older than me who taught me in the early 1980s how to be a successful waiter at the very expensive Marino’s Italian restaurant, where we waiters wore white jackets and bow-ties.  I now have August just about complete, and am ready to move on to September.  The regret and remorse are diminishing.  Maybe I’ll just pull this one off.  Check back with me the beginning of January.  Try it.  It is much harder than getting three hundred sixty-five Facebook “friends,” most of whom are not friends but barely acquaintances.

I am, in the process, lowering the standards or broadening my horizon on my criteria for “an important positive impact on my life.”  I am beginning to realize that there were many people who had an important impact on my life without being in-my-face sort of people.  Ben and John at Japanese Auto Repair in Toledo, the most honest and trustworthy car repairmen I have ever known, who always had time to chat with me about anything.  Paul, Mike, and John, guys who ran bicycle shops where you could hang out and drink coffee with them and they didn’t make you feel like you were getting in the way of business.  Housekeeping staff at places I have worked who have been kind and friendly, perhaps too because I respected them and their work.  Doctors and dentists who treated me as a person, not as a thing on a production line.  Clerks at stores or shops I frequented, who genuinely seemed happy to see me, got to know my name, treated me like I mattered to them.

I am now down to the last week of September and, as I write, today is the last day of September.  In Michigan, it is the last day of trout fishing season on the small streams for the small trout.  Whether I make it or not all the way to December 31 identifying three hundred sixty-five different folks who had an important positive impact on my life, I will, in my first post in January 2012, list all the names I have.  And if I missed your name, you will have to let me know about it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Why is Self-Control So Hard?

From Kindergarten through much of elementary school (in the 1960s), grade cards that I had to bring home to get signed by my parents (and the teachers were wise to forgeries) included not only grades (A, B, C, D, E) for reading, writing, and math, but also grades (O-utstanding, S-atisfactory, U-nsatisfactory) for behavior and attitudes.  One of the behavior and attitude areas was Self-Control, and I almost invariably got a U.  Didn't matter that I got all As on the academic subjects.  My parents would have been prouder had I gotten Cs on academic work and an O on self-control.  In retrospect, I don't think it was lack of self-control; I think it was a combination of smart-aleckiness and quick-wittedness.  I could catch teachers in their grammatical and mathematical mistakes, find humor in their amphibolous sentence constructions, or identify puns based on homophones (like the word “homophone” itself: a telephone for a gay male; that would get me sent to the principal’s office).  I was not a fully passive, fully compliant kid.  I have a history of interest in the topic of self-control.  It ended up being around the fringes of my Ph.D. dissertation on Aristotle on reasoning about action.  I ended up publishing a couple of scholarly articles on akrasia.  Akrasia is the Greek word that refers to the failure to carry out our intentions (a “lack of” krasia “power”).  It is that puzzling notion of failing to do what I want to do, and not because someone else is restraining me.  I know now that tonight I do not want to eat half a bag of potato chips.  And I know that even when, tonight, I open up the bag of chips.  But once I open up the bag of chips, smell the aroma, taste the first few, and get distracted watching bull riding on the television (and get distracted thinking of the amphiboly in that phrase), I end up eating half the bag of chips.

A couple of weeks ago while looking at my library's new books shelf, a book caught my attention.  Daniel Akst, We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess (New York: Penguin Press, 2011).  On the cover is a chocolate covered donut with sprinkles, but attached to the donut is a lit fuse, making the donut look like an explosive.  It wasn’t the cover that attracted my attention; it was the title and subtitle.  The subtitle captures the theme of the book well.  There were good old days when self-control was not as hard.  Think of the days before there were bags of potato chips, days when almost all your food was made from scratch.  You could not just reach in the cupboard, grab a box or bag of ready-to-eat food, and stuff yourself.  You had to plan.  Go down to the cellar to get a couple of potatoes, get a fire going in the stove, get out the fry pan, put in a scoop of lard or bacon grease, slice the potatoes thin, put them in the pan and fry them for thirty minutes.  In the mean time, you have not milked two of your cows, or hoed the weeds in your bean patch, and now your butter or bean supply is going to be short.  Now we live in an age of excess, where distractions to our intentions are all over the place (like the internet on which you are now reading this post).  It is just so easy to be distracted, to procrastinate, to not do what we say we really want to do.

Akst ranges over scholarly work from philosophers, psychologists, and brain scientists.  Humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.  For instance, near the beginning of the book (around p. 13) he reports Harry Frankfurt's distinction between first order and second order desires.  First order desires are immediate, felt, action-motivating desires.  Second order desires are desires we have about our desires.  Example: "I desire to eat a deep-fried peanut butter, banana, and bacon sandwich" expresses a first order desire, while "I want not to desire to eat such a fat bomb" expresses a second order desire.  Think of the person who has an addiction, and wants to not have the addiction.  On almost the last page of the book, Frankfurt is referred to again.  In between he refers to Homer, Hesiod, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and numerous 20th century philosophers who have had important things to say about akrasia and self-control.  From the social sciences he relates large quantities of studies, many of which suggest that humans do not have as much control over their actions as they sometimes suppose. One thing I found fascinating were the studies on "priming."  If I hand you a warm cup of coffee or hot chocolate, and ask you to describe a memorable grade school teacher, I will much more likely hear from you about a teacher that you liked, enjoyed, for whom you have "warm" feelings.  If I hand you a glass of ice water and ask the same question, I will much more likely hear from you about a teacher that you didn't like, didn't enjoy, for whom you have "cold" feelings.  Were I to ask you why you selected that teacher to describe, you would not recognize that I primed you to select that one.  We are not as free or in control as we sometimes think we are.  From the natural sciences, Akst relates much research about recent work on neurophysiology, on functions of different parts of the brain, on neuronal activity in the various parts of the brain, and in varying effects of chemical neurotransmitters (like dopamine and serotonin).  For example functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brains of murderers shows a much decreased, compared to the rest of the population, neuronal activity in the pre-frontal cortices (the part of the brain that has executive, decision-making functions).  Reduced dopamine concentrations in the prefrontal cortex are thought to enhance distraction, to make it easier to not stay on task.  Is your lack of self-control more a matter of natural, uncontrollable aspects of your brain, or is it more a matter of your history of decisions, your environment, things you can control?  We know that serotonin levels are correlated with depressive states.  Serotonin levels can be adjusted chemically (for example, with Prozac).  Serotonin levels can also be adjusted by psychobehavioral therapy (helping the person to identify events that contributed toward the depression, and modifying the behavior to diminish symptoms and feelings of depression).  Prozac is cheaper than behavioral therapy (one therapy session costs as much as a two month supply of Prozac), so for insurance companies it is the favored remedy.  So even if you think it is nature (“I have low serotonin, therefore I am depressed”), it doesn’t follow that you can’t do something about it.  You can take Prozac, hoping it functions analogous to training wheels on a bicycle.  It keeps you from crashing while you learn to balance eventually without it.  In any case, we don’t have all the control of ourselves that we sometimes think we have.

While Akst ranges over the work of scholars and researchers, it is not meant to be a book for them.  It is a book for a learned audience, for people who continue to be curious about themselves and the folks around them.  I dare say that folks in leadership positions (supervisors, coaches), and in positions where they need to influence others for decision making (salespersons), ought to find the book fascinating.  Too, those who are being supervised and being influenced by others might want to read it to gain a greater measure of self-control in their lives.  And for those of you who, unlike me, have issues of self-control, you might learn a few tips to help you in your second order desires.  One such tip is the notion of “pre-commitment.”  In our cool, calm, collected moments, we arrange aspects of our lives in order to fend off in advance likely temptations.  We don’t go to the grocery store hungry.  We buy a year-long membership at the health club, and pay in advance for a personal trainer, so we don’t skip out on exercise.  We have someone else handle our finances and give us a weekly allowance so we don’t blow our family budget on beer and the lottery.  We drive an indirect route to work so we don’t go by the convenience store to pick up a pack of cigarettes and a jumbo soda.  We put a photo of ourselves when we were thin on the refrigerator to keep us from reaching in for the ice cream.  We keep photos of our spouse and children on our desk or in our wallet to keep us from pursuing liaisons that would be destructive to our spouse and children (and ourselves).

Now where did that bag of chips go?  Did someone hide them from me?