On Friday, April 4, 2008, I stopped being a smoker. The following day, I flew down to Florida where I met Stephanie, the woman who I had been talking to a year online but had never seen in person. She meant a lot to me already, but I had no way of knowing that eventually we would be married.
Something I did know: she wouldn’t be around me if I was a smoker. It wasn’t even a matter of personal preference, it was necessity. She has a serious case of asthma. Cigarette smoke is an immediate health hazard. If I were a smoker, our relationship would be over before it began.
I attribute my desire to be with Stephanie for making quitting so easy. I was so thrilled to finally be with her over the next few days, I didn’t even think of smoking. She didn’t even know I had been a smoker until most of that week was over, when she caught me looking longingly at a cigarette.
Just give me a reason
I could say that I made the choice to quit because Stephanie was more important than cigarettes — by an order of several magnitudes, might I add. It certainly didn’t happen because cigarettes vanished out of stores. And it didn’t happen because I’d become aware overnight of the health risks of smoking. Sadly, I’d known that all along.
But if you’ve been reading this series so far, you know what’s coming: perhaps I didn’t really decide to quit smoking at all. That would imply free will. And that, in Spinoza’s philosophy, is a no go.
In a deterministic philosophy, my quitting was instead the inevitable outcome of a chain of causes and effects. I acquired more knowledge, which made the arguments for quitting simply become more compelling than the reasons for staying a smoker. Quitting was a fait accompli.
There’s something in human nature, of course, that rebels upon hearing this. That something is often called “ego.” We take pride in things like our ability to quit smoking, to complete a marathon, to earn an advanced degree or tick of any other item on a bucket list. That’s understandable, because these things often involve a good amount of effort. If we all of a sudden say that we weren’t the cause of these accomplishments, have we robbed ourselves of bragging rights, too?
Not necessarily. While the outcome may have been determined in anything you do, any hard work you put in is still genuine.
Take, for instance, this novel I’m currently working on. While I have always thought I generated the idea for it myself, another way of looking at it is that given my talents, abilities and interests, it was a given that I would end up writing about this idea as soon as I encountered the “a-ha” moment that kicked it off.
Just to prepare for writing, I hunted down source material, academic articles and nonfiction works like a ravenous student. I’ve made a handful of runs at writing the thing to get it to this point, and it’s been satisfying to my writing improve with each attempt. I’m also learning about editing by tackling a project of this size for the first time. Whether or not I ever manage to sell the thing to a publishing house, all the work and all the enjoyment I’ve put into the project is mine to keep.
Failure is not an option
If you do accept a deterministic philosophy, there’s a lovely benefit awaiting you. It holds a key to erasing feelings like failure, shame and anxiety that are infamous for holding people back from finding enjoyment and fulfillment in their lives.
Return again to my example of my novel. Let’s say the worst thing happens, which is nothing. Nothing happens with it. I give the manuscript my all, I polish it the best I can, but absolutely no one is interested in the thing. Aside from my long-suffering friends and family, no one ever gets to read it.
According to Spinoza’s world view, that was always going to happen. Maybe it happened because of things I did — perhaps I’m an awful writer. Perhaps it happened because of things I will never know — maybe the publishing industry isn’t interested in buying manuscripts from my genre. It doesn’t matter. For whatever reason, it was always ultimately out of my control.
Or say you go out for a job interview for a position you really want. You do your research on the job, prepare for the questions you think they’ll ask and jot down a few you want to ask and you give it your best shot. On pins and needles, you wait for an answer. Waiting is awful, and doubly so for anyone who struggles with anxiety. But if you believe in a determined universe, the answer was a given before you even began. There’s no need to worry, que sera sera.
(For anyone asking, “Why even dress up nice for the interview if the answer is a given?” Well, common sense. Even if the universe is ordered, people still believe in first impressions. Come in wearing pajamas and whoever is doing the interview won’t be overly impressed, no matter who their favorite philosopher is.)
This mindset is gentle and self-forgiving. It doesn’t ask you to be what you are not. It doesn’t hold you accountable to a list of “shoulds” that don’t match your own desires for your life. It doesn’t even point the finger of blame at you when things you worked so hard for fail to pan out. It accepts that so much is beyond our control.*
[[ * A word of hesitation here. Technically, it should be everything is out of our control, right? Simply put, someone with an internal locus of control believes that they control events around them, while someone with an external locus of control feels that things happen to them. Among other things, an internal locus of control is associated with higher academic success and lower rates of depression. I’m concerned that ceding so much control leads to giving away that internal locus of control.
However — and this is significant — Spinoza also prizes finding happiness. It’s the goal of his philosophy. So if being an artist is what makes you happy, make art, no matter what “shoulds” your parents or society want to put on you. That, at least, grants back some of that internal locus of control ]]
The blame game
But just as Spinoza gives, he takes away. Having granted a way out of self blame, he also takes away the possibility of blaming others for shortcomings or to fault other people, society or even concepts like sexism or racism when things don’t go our way.
People who don’t have free will lack the ability to choose to do bad things. They can’t choose to backstab you at work, to sleep with your husband or to join the KKK. That doesn’t mean the KKK doesn’t exist or isn’t a very real problem, it just means that people don’t choose to join it; they were just necessarily going to join it all along. Akin to the way you can’t blame a small child for understanding why they do the things they do, you can’t blame anyone. We all lack enough knowledge.
That’s something of a bitter pill to swallow, isn’t it. It’s one thing, perhaps, to write off the person who rudely cuts you off in morning traffic. It’s quite another to show the same amount of understanding to someone who participates in genocide. Or who does a pretty shoddy job of leading your country. Or on a personal level, who spreads rumors about your at your workplace. But all of them, according to Spinoza, were doing what they had to do.
And that brings up a whole lot of thorny questions, like is there good or evil, in that case, and what do we do with that person who participated in an act of genocide, or even in an armed robbery? It’s something I’ll take a look at in the next post.
In the meantime, it’s enough to just contemplate showing understanding to the next person to run a red light in front of you. Or that co-worker who stole your lunch out of the fridge. Or the neighbor who keeps letting their dog take a go in your yard.
But if you can let go of that blame, and see that people are ensnared in the same nets of cause-and-effect as you, and like you, just doing the best they can given the experiences and nature they are given …
… if you can do all that, what can you gain?
Be at peace
I have given switching to this mindset a test run. When I watch the news out of Washington, or when someone at work slights me, I try to remind myself of all the things above. I tell myself that outcomes will work themselves out as they will, and that my co-worker wasn’t trying to work against me, but acting in accordance with his nature.
And does it work? Well — yes. I’m someone who has struggled with anxiety for years. I have a prescription for an anti-anxiety medicine that I don’t have to use regularly, but I carry it with me just in case. I’ve had panic attacks. I’ve had PTSD. It’s a nasty business. I’ve lost hours — better parts of days, really — when I get caught in a downward anxiety spiral. So I know how nasty anxiety can be. And I’m always open to anything that can help cope with it.
This philosophy isn’t a cure, or at least, it hasn’t been yet. But it is a help. Especially, I find, with things that are far beyond my influence, such as the upcoming election. It’s comforting to find a way to let go of some of that anxiety. And that, at least, is something.