Does The Past Determine Our Future, or Can We Change It?

What factors determine who we become and how our lives turn out? Does the past dictate the future? What does it mean to choose happiness? These are foundational questions in The Courage To Be Disliked, which we’ve been exploring in The Haven Book Club.

This book enjoys poking and prodding at assumptions we might carry.

It launches into a fundamental presupposition in Adlerian Psychology: “Trauma Does Not Exist“.

But as with all headlines, there seems to be more than meets the initial eye.

As I understand it, trauma is the unconscious emotional response to an event. It’s how the sub-language body and mind cope with feeling uncertain, unsafe, and at risk. It is a residue left by our inability to cope with our experience of the experience.

Plasticity and Experience

The young man in the book talks about a friend who is afraid to leave his room. He imagines what might have led to such a situation, stating that effects always have a cause. But the philosopher suggests rather than seeing causes as external (e.g. being bullied or having an accident), trauma is, by definition, caused internally and applied externally. Therefore, we might find the power to change our lives if we see our choices as goals rather than determined inevitabilities.

The word “goal” might imply conscious intention at the level of action (i.e. I want to stay in my room, so I’m actively choosing to live like this). But many goals underpinning our activities are driven by the unconscious desire for safety, certainty, and control (i.e. the body wants to keep us safe – a state of anxiety is the best way it “knows” to do that). This is why we get stuck repeating behaviours and making choices that frustrate us, wishing we could change but feeling like we can’t.

The philosopher implies that the more familiar we become with this way of seeing our actions, the more space we create to mould and play with the goals that underpin our lives.

The Difference Between Influence and Determinism

The young man has decided that despite his wishes for a better life, there is no way he can change who he is. His fate has been determined by his upbringing. Therefore, he concludes the fact that people wish they could change proves they can’t. Otherwise, they would do it.

But the philosopher encourages him to look at things differently.

The worst horrors, abuses, and calamities happen to people and communities. The denial of trauma is not a denial of these things. Instead, it’s the suggestion that while events will almost certainly influence it, they don’t determine the exact story that follows. Otherwise, everyone who goes through the same thing will draw the same meaning from it and live identical lives.

Our life is not a script we have to live by, handed to us by someone or something in the past, but something we write in the here and now.

Determining Blame and Finding Fault

In my old workplace, whenever something went wrong, the first question people would ask was, “Whose fault was it, and what did they do?” It was unsafe to make mistakes and difficult to break out of the patterns underpinning the culture.

“Who can we blame?” is a question that permeates society today. Unfortunately, it’s often our first response. As such, we might spend time pointing fingers, looking over our shoulders, and covering our tracks, ironically creating a more dangerous world to protect ourselves from.

This might become a self-perpetuating spiral and lead to a polarised view of situations, people, and events. We relinquish responsibility for our actions when we have something to blame, saying things like, “I did it because I had no choice…they started it”.

Again, this does not absolve responsibility and fault in people who do unspeakable things. Rather, it helps us do the opposite. Providing a foundation for meaningful accountability that can’t be outsourced to pre-determining factors.

Unhappiness As a Choice

Another aspect of this trap of determinism is the way we view others. The young person adopts a victim mentality, evident in his conclusion that if only he were like his friend, he would be happier. Of course, he knows he cannot be another person. So he permits himself not to accept himself by telling a story about the perceived happiness of others.

This is not uncommon. We might look around us and decide that other people’s lives are whole and complete. This opens the door to resentment and blame. “It’s easy for them; they know the right people and get all the luck”, we might think as we disempower ourselves with unfounded judgements of the other.

Personality, Disposition, and Lifestyle

Another determining factor the young man points to as a reason he cannot change is his personality. He sees himself as a fixed subject.

But personality and disposition are described as tendencies of thought and action. These are primarily influenced by how we think about and define ourselves. In this sense, we equate our personality to our way of viewing the world. Still, when judged through a deterministic framework, we are condemned to personality rather than free to collaborate with it to serve our goals.

Disposition and temperament is our natural tendency. Who we are in our original position.

For example, people might have a calm or fiery disposition. We might describe someone as naturally inquisitive or authoritarian. Innately warm or aloof.

We have no influence or power in these things when viewed through a deterministic lens. We say, “It’s just who I am; deal with it”. But lifestyle choice is our relationship with those natural dispositions and the story we tell about what it means to be us. This lifestyle is something we can constantly flex and shift according to need.

Lifestyle also emerges through our choices about how and what to see in people (including ourselves), things, and situations. It influences our world experience; what we anticipate is usually what we will notice, and what we see will affect the story we tell ourselves about the way things, people, and we, are.

Excuses To Remain in The Realm of Possibilities

It takes courage to change. I imagine many of us can relate to the story of the philosopher’s friend who dreams of being a novelist but has never completed any of his work. He is too busy with his job and cannot find time to write. Perhaps, the philosopher speculates, he is afraid of criticism or being confronted by the reality of writing something shoddy that gets rejected. Maybe he’s scared to acknowledge that he’s not very good…yet.

We choose instead to live in the realm of possibilities. A place where if only we had the time, the space, or the right equipment, we could do what we dream of. The next set might later replace these excuses, like “I’m too old” and “I’ve got too many other responsibilities now”.

How we hold our current situation influences our capacity for happiness. In other words, if we look around and find excuses, we lack the courage to be happy. We make things complicated, so we can’t do them.

But what if things are pretty straightforward when we break them down?

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