Головна Everything is fucked

Everything is fucked

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english
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0062888439
ISBN 13:
9780062888433
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EPUB, 1.03 MB
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Titandeath

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2018
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Dedication


For Fernanda, of course





Contents


Cover

Title Page

Dedication


Part I: Hope



* * *



Chapter 1: The Uncomfortable Truth

Chapter 2: Self-Control Is an Illusion

Chapter 3: Newton’s Laws of Emotion

Chapter 4: How to Make All Your Dreams Come True

Chapter 5: Hope Is Fucked

Part II: Everything Is Fucked



* * *



Chapter 6: The Formula of Humanity

Chapter 7: Pain Is the Universal Constant

Chapter 8: The Feelings Economy

Chapter 9: The Final Religion

Acknowledgments

Notes

About the Author

Also by Mark Manson

Copyright

About the Publisher





Part I:


Hope





Chapter 1


The Uncomfortable Truth


On a small plot of land in the monotonous countryside of central Europe, amid the warehouses of a former military barracks, a nexus of geographically concentrated evil would arise, denser and darker than anything the world had ever seen. Over the span of four years, more than 1.3 million people would be systematically sorted, enslaved, tortured, and murdered here, and it would all happen in an area slightly larger than Central Park in Manhattan. And no one would do anything to stop it.

Except for one man.

It is the stuff of fairy tales and comic books: a hero marches headlong into the fiery jaws of hell to confront some great manifestation of evil. The odds are impossible. The rationale is laughable. Yet our fantastical hero never hesitates, never flinches. He stands tall and slays the dragon, crushes the demon invaders, saves the planet and maybe even a princess or two.

And for a brief time, there is hope.

But this is not a story of hope. This is a story of everything being completely and utterly fucked. Fucked in proportions and on scales that today, with the comfort of our free Wi-Fi and oversize Snuggie blankets, you and I can hardly imagine.

Witold Pilecki was already a war hero before he decided to sneak into Auschwitz. As a young man, Pilecki had been a decorated officer in the Polish-Soviet War of 1918. He had kicked the Communists in the nuts before most people ev; en knew what a pinko Commie bastard was. After the war, Pilecki moved to the Polish countryside, married a schoolteacher, and had two kids. He enjoyed riding horses and wearing fancy hats and smoking cigars. Life was simple and good.

Then that whole Hitler thing happened, and before Poland could get both its boots on, the Nazis had already Blitzkrieged through half the country. Poland lost its entire territory in a little more than a month. It wasn’t exactly a fair fight: while the Nazis invaded in the west, the Soviets invaded in the east. It was like being stuck between a rock and a hard place—except the rock was a megalomaniacal mass murderer trying to conquer the world and the hard place was rampant, senseless genocide. I’m still not sure which was which.

Early on, the Soviets were actually far crueler than the Nazis. They had done this shit before, you know—the whole “overthrow a government and enslave a population to your faulty ideology” thing. The Nazis were still somewhat imperialist virgins (which, when you look at pictures of Hitler’s mustache, isn’t hard to imagine). In those first months of the war, it’s estimated that the Soviets rounded up over a million Polish citizens and sent them east. Think about that for a second. A million people, in a matter of months, just gone. Some didn’t stop until they hit the gulags in Siberia; others were found in mass graves decades later. Many are still unaccounted for to this day.

Pilecki fought in those battles—against both the Germans and the Soviets. And after their defeat, he and fellow Polish officers started an underground resistance group in Warsaw. They called themselves the Secret Polish Army.

In the spring of 1940, the Secret Polish Army got wind of the fact that the Germans were building a massive prison complex outside some backwater town in the southern part of the country. The Germans named this new prison complex Auschwitz. By the summer of 1940, thousands of military officers and leading Polish nationals were disappearing from western Poland. Fears arose among the resistance that the same mass incarceration that had occurred in the east with the Soviets was now on the menu in the west. Pilecki and his crew suspected that Auschwitz, a prison the size of a small town, was likely involved in the disappearances and that it might already house thousands of former Polish soldiers.

That’s when Pilecki volunteered to sneak into Auschwitz. Initially, it was a rescue mission—he would allow himself to get arrested, and once there, he would organize with other Polish soldiers, coordinate a mutiny, and break out of the prison camp.

It was a mission so suicidal that he might as well have asked his commander permission to drink a bucket of bleach. His superiors thought he was crazy, and told him as much.

But, as the weeks went by, the problem only grew worse: thousands of elite Poles were disappearing, and Auschwitz was still a huge blind spot in the Allied intelligence network. The Allies had no idea what was going on there and little chance of finding out. Eventually, Pilecki’s commanders relented. One evening, at a routine checkpoint in Warsaw, Pilecki let himself be arrested by the SS for violating curfew. And soon, he was on his way to Auschwitz, the only man known ever to have voluntarily entered a Nazi concentration camp.

Once he got there, he saw that the reality of Auschwitz was far worse than anyone had suspected. Prisoners were routinely shot in roll call lineups for transgressions as minor as fidgeting or not standing up straight. The manual labor was grueling and endless. Men were literally worked to death, often performing tasks that were useless or meant nothing. The first month Pilecki was there, a full third of the men in his barracks died of exhaustion or pneumonia or were shot. Regardless, by the end of the 1940, Pilecki, the comic book superhero motherfucker, had still somehow set up an espionage operation.

Oh, Pilecki—you titan, you champion, flying above the abyss—how did you manage to create an intelligence network by embedding messages in laundry baskets? How did you build your own transistor radio out of spare parts and stolen batteries, MacGyver-style, and then successfully transmit plans for an attack on the prison camp to the Secret Polish Army in Warsaw? How did you create smuggling rings to bring in food, medicine, and clothing for prisoners, saving countless lives and delivering hope to the remotest desert of the human heart? What did this world do to deserve you?

Over the course of two years, Pilecki built an entire resistance unit within Auschwitz. There was a chain of command, with ranks and officers; a logistics network; and lines of communication to the outside world. And all this went undiscovered by the SS guards for almost two years. Pilecki’s ultimate aim was to foment a full-scale revolt within the camp. With help and coordination from the outside, he believed he could stoke a prison break, overrun the undermanned SS guards, and release tens of thousands of highly trained Polish guerrilla fighters into the wild. He sent his plans and reports to Warsaw. For months, he waited. For months, he survived.

But then came the Jews. First, in buses. Then, packed in train cars. Soon, they were arriving by the tens of thousands, an undulating current of people floating in an ocean of death and despair. Stripped of all family possessions and dignity, they filed mechanically into the newly renovated “shower” barracks, where they were gassed and their bodies burned.

Pilecki’s reports to the outside became frantic. They’re murdering tens of thousands of people here each day. Mostly Jews. The death toll could potentially be in the millions. He pleaded with the Secret Polish Army to liberate the camp at once. He said if you can’t liberate the camp, then at least bomb it. For God’s sake, at least destroy the gas chambers. At least.

The Secret Polish Army received his messages but figured he was exaggerating. In the farthest reaches of their minds, nothing could be that fucked. Nothing.

Pilecki was the first person ever to alert the world to the Holocaust. His intelligence was forwarded through the various resistance groups around Poland, then on to the Polish government-in-exile in the United Kingdom, who then passed his reports to the Allied Command in London. The information eventually even made its way to Eisenhower and Churchill.

They, too, figured Pilecki had to be exaggerating.

In 1943, Pilecki realized that his plans of a mutiny and prison break were never going to happen: The Secret Polish Army wasn’t coming. The Americans and British weren’t coming. And in all likelihood, it was the Soviets who were coming—and they would be worse. Pilecki decided that remaining inside the camp was too risky. It was time to escape.

He made it look easy, of course. First, he faked illness and got himself admitted to the camp’s hospital. From there, he lied to the doctors about what work group he was supposed to return to, saying he had the night shift at the bakery, which was on the edge of camp, near the river. When the doctors discharged him, he headed to the bakery, where he proceeded to “work” until 2:00 a.m., when the last batch of bread finished baking. From there, it was just a matter of cutting the telephone wire, silently prying open the back door, changing into stolen civilian clothes without the SS guards noticing, sprinting to the river a mile away while being shot at, and then navigating his way back to civilization via the stars.

Today, much in our world appears to be fucked. Not Nazi Holocaust–level fucked (not even close), but still, pretty fucked nonetheless.

Stories such as Pilecki’s inspire us. They give us hope. They make us say, “Well, damn, things were way worse then, and that guy transcended it all. What have I done lately?”—which, in this couch-potato-pundit era of tweetstorms and outrage porn is probably what we should be asking ourselves. When we zoom out and get perspective, we realize that while heroes like Pilecki save the world, we swat at gnats and complain that the AC isn’t high enough.

Pilecki’s story is the single most heroic thing I’ve ever come across in my life. Because heroism isn’t just bravery or guts or shrewd maneuvering. These things are common and are often used in unheroic ways. No, being heroic is the ability to conjure hope where there is none. To strike a match to light up the void. To show us a possibility for a better world—not a better world we want to exist, but a better world we didn’t know could exist. To take a situation where everything seems to be absolutely fucked and still somehow make it good.

Bravery is common. Resilience is common. But heroism has a philosophical component to it. There’s some great “Why?” that heroes bring to the table—some incredible cause or belief that goes unshaken, no matter what. And this is why, as a culture, we are so desperate for a hero today: not because things are necessarily so bad, but because we’ve lost the clear “Why?” that drove previous generations.

We are a culture in need not of peace or prosperity or new hood ornaments for our electric cars. We have all that. We are a culture in need of something far more precarious. We are a culture and a people in need of hope.

After witnessing years of war, torture, death, and genocide, Pilecki never lost hope. Despite losing his country, his family, his friends, and nearly his own life, he never lost hope. Even after the war, while enduring Soviet domination, he never lost the hope of a free and independent Poland. He never lost the hope of a quiet and happy life for his children. He never lost the hope of being able to save a few more lives, of helping a few more people.

After the war, Pilecki returned to Warsaw and continued spying, this time on the Communist Party, which had just come to power there. Again, he would be the first person to notify the West of an ongoing evil, in this case that the Soviets had infiltrated the Polish government and rigged its elections. He would also be the first to document the Soviet atrocities committed in the east during the war.

This time, though, he was discovered. He was warned that he was about to be arrested, and he had a chance to flee to Italy. Yet, Pilecki declined—he would rather stay and die Polish than run and live as something he didn’t recognize. A free and independent Poland, by then, was his only source of hope. Without it, he was nothing.

And thus, his hope would also be his undoing. The Communists captured Pilecki in 1947, and they didn’t go easy on him. He was tortured for almost a year, so harshly and consistently that he told his wife that “Auschwitz was just a trifle” by comparison.

Still, he never cooperated with his interrogators.

Eventually, realizing they could get no information from him, the Communists decided to make an example of him. In 1948, they held a show trial and charged Pilecki with everything from falsifying documents and violating curfew to engaging in espionage and treason. A month later, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. On the final day of the trial, Pilecki was allowed to speak. He stated that his allegiance had always been to Poland and its people, that he had never harmed or betrayed any Polish citizen, and that he regretted nothing. He concluded his statement with “I have tried to live my life such that in the hour of my death I would feel joy rather than fear.”

And if that’s not the most hardcore thing you’ve ever heard, then I want some of what you’re having.


How May I Help You?

If I worked at Starbucks, instead of writing people’s names on their coffee cup, I’d write the following:

One day, you and everyone you love will die. And beyond a small group of people for an extremely brief period of time, little of what you say or do will ever matter. This is the Uncomfortable Truth of life. And everything you think or do is but an elaborate avoidance of it. We are inconsequential cosmic dust, bumping and milling about on a tiny blue speck. We imagine our own importance. We invent our purpose—we are nothing.

Enjoy your fucking coffee.

I’d have to write it in really tiny lettering, of course. And it’d take a while to write, meaning the line of morning rush-hour customers would be backed out the door. Not exactly stellar customer service, either. This is probably just one of the reasons why I’m not employable.

But seriously, how could you tell someone, in good conscience, to “have a nice day” while knowing that all their thoughts and motivations stem from a never-ending need to avoid the inherent meaninglessness of human existence?

Because, in the infinite expanse of space/time, the universe does not care whether your mother’s hip replacement goes well, or your kids attend college, or your boss thinks you made a bitching spreadsheet. It doesn’t care if the Democrats or the Republicans win the presidential election. It doesn’t care if a celebrity gets caught doing cocaine while furiously masturbating in an airport bathroom (again). It doesn’t care if the forests burn or the ice melts or the waters rise or the air simmers or we all get vaporized by a superior alien race.

You care.

You care, and you desperately convince yourself that because you care, it all must have some great cosmic meaning behind it.

You care because, deep down, you need to feel that sense of importance in order to avoid the Uncomfortable Truth, to avoid the incomprehensibility of your existence, to avoid being crushed by the weight of your own material insignificance. And you—like me, like everyone—then project that imagined sense of importance onto the world around you because it gives you hope.

Is it too early to have this conversation? Here, have another coffee. I even made a winky-smiley face with the steamed milk. Isn’t it cute? I’ll wait while you Instagram it.

Okay, where were we? Oh yeah! The incomprehensibility of your existence—right. Now, you might be thinking, “Well, Mark, I believe we’re all here for a reason, and nothing is a coincidence, and everyone matters because all our actions affect somebody, and even if we can help one person, then it’s still worth it, right?”

Now, aren’t you just as cute as a button!

See, that’s your hope talking. That’s a story your mind spins to make it worth waking up in the morning: something needs to matter because without something mattering, then there’s no reason to go on living. And some form of simple altruism or a reduction in suffering is always our mind’s go-to for making it feel like it’s worth doing anything.

Our psyche needs hope to survive the way a fish needs water. Hope is the fuel for our mental engine. It’s the butter on our biscuit. It’s a lot of really cheesy metaphors. Without hope, your whole mental apparatus will stall out or starve. If we don’t believe there’s any hope that the future will be better than the present, that our lives will improve in some way, then we spiritually die. After all, if there’s no hope of things ever being better, then why live—why do anything?

Here’s what a lot of people don’t get: the opposite of happiness is not anger or sadness.1 If you’re angry or sad, that means you still give a fuck about something. That means something still matters. That means you still have hope.2

No, the opposite of happiness is hopelessness, an endless gray horizon of resignation and indifference.3 It’s the belief that everything is fucked, so why do anything at all?

Hopelessness is a cold and bleak nihilism, a sense that there is no point, so fuck it—why not run with scissors or sleep with your boss’s wife or shoot up a school? It is the Uncomfortable Truth, a silent realization that in the face of infinity, everything we could possibly care about quickly approaches zero.

Hopelessness is the root of anxiety, mental illness, and depression. It is the source of all misery and the cause of all addiction. This is not an overstatement.4 Chronic anxiety is a crisis of hope. It is the fear of a failed future. Depression is a crisis of hope. It is the belief in a meaningless future. Delusion, addiction, obsession—these are all the mind’s desperate and compulsive attempts at generating hope one neurotic tic or obsessive craving at a time.5

The avoidance of hopelessness—that is, the construction of hope—then becomes our mind’s primary project. All meaning, everything we understand about ourselves and the world, is constructed for the purpose of maintaining hope. Therefore, hope is the only thing any of us willingly dies for. Hope is what we believe to be greater than ourselves. Without it, we believe we are nothing.

When I was in college, my grandfather died. For a few years afterward, I had this intense feeling that I must live in such a way as to make him proud. This felt reasonable and obvious on some deep level, but it wasn’t. In fact, it made no logical sense at all. I hadn’t had a close relationship with my grandfather. We’d never talked on the phone. We hadn’t corresponded. I didn’t even see him the last five years or so that he was alive.

Not to mention: he was dead. How did my “living to make him proud” affect anything?

His death caused me to brush up against that Uncomfortable Truth. So, my mind got to work, looking to build hope out of the situation in order to sustain me, to keep any nihilism at bay. My mind decided that because my grandfather was now deprived of his ability to hope and aspire in his own life, it was important for me to carry on hope and aspiration in his honor. This was my mind’s bite-size piece of faith, my own personal mini-religion of purpose.

And it worked! For a short while, his death infused otherwise banal and empty experiences with import and meaning. And that meaning gave me hope. You’ve probably felt something similar when someone close to you passed away. It’s a common feeling. You tell yourself you’ll live in a way that will make your loved one proud. You tell yourself you will use your life to celebrate his. You tell yourself that this is an important and good thing.

And that “good thing” is what sustains us in these moments of existential terror. I walked around imagining that my grandfather was following me, like a really nosy ghost, constantly looking over my shoulder. This man whom I barely knew when he was alive was now somehow extremely concerned with how I did on my calculus exam. It was totally irrational.

Our psyches construct little narratives like this whenever they face adversity, these before/after stories we invent for ourselves. And we must keep these hope narratives alive, all the time, even if they become unreasonable or destructive, as they are the only stabilizing force protecting our minds from the Uncomfortable Truth.

These hope narratives are then what give our lives a sense of purpose. Not only do they imply that there is something better in the future, but also that it’s actually possible to go out and achieve that something. When people prattle on about needing to find their “life’s purpose,” what they really mean is that it’s no longer clear to them what matters, what is a worthy use of their limited time here on earth6—in short, what to hope for. They are struggling to see what the before/after of their lives should be.

That’s the hard part: finding that before/after for yourself. It’s difficult because there’s no way ever to know for sure if you’ve got it right. This is why a lot of people flock to religion, because religions acknowledge this permanent state of unknowing and demand faith in the face of it. This is also probably partly why religious people suffer from depression and commit suicide in far fewer numbers than nonreligious people: that practiced faith protects them from the Uncomfortable Truth.7

But your hope narratives don’t need to be religious. They can be anything. This book is my little source of hope. It gives me purpose; it gives me meaning. And the narrative that I’ve constructed around that hope is that I believe this book might help some people, that it might make both my life and the world a little bit better.

Do I know that for sure? No. But it’s my little before/after story, and I’m sticking to it. It gets me up in the morning and gets me excited about my life. And not only is that not a bad thing, it’s the only thing.

For some people, the before/after story is raising their kids well. For others, it’s saving the environment. For others, it’s making a bunch of money and having a big-ass boat. For others, it’s simply trying to improve their golf swing.

Whether we realize it or not, we all have these narratives we’ve elected to buy into for whatever reason. It doesn’t matter if the way you get to hope is via religious faith or evidence-based theory or an intuition or a well-reasoned argument—they all produce the same result: you have some belief that (a) there is potential for growth or improvement or salvation in the future, and (b) there are ways we can navigate ourselves to get there. That’s it. Day after day, year after year, our lives are made up of the endless overlapping of these hope narratives. They are the psychological carrot at the end of the stick.

If this all sounds nihilistic, please, don’t get the wrong idea. This book is not an argument for nihilism. It is one against nihilism—both the nihilism within us and the growing sense of nihilism that seems to emerge with the modern world.8 And to successfully argue against nihilism, you must start at nihilism. You must start at the Uncomfortable Truth. From there, you must slowly build a convincing case for hope. And not just any hope, but a sustainable, benevolent form of hope. A hope that can bring us together rather than tear us apart. A hope that is robust and powerful, yet still grounded in reason and reality. A hope that can carry us to the end of our days with a sense of gratitude and satisfaction.

This is not easy to do (obviously). And in the twenty-first century, it’s arguably more difficult than ever. Nihilism and the pure indulgence of desire that accompanies it are gripping the modern world. It is power for the sake of power. Success for the sake of success. Pleasure for the sake of pleasure. Nihilism acknowledges no broader “Why?” It adheres to no great truth or cause. It’s a simple “Because it feels good.” And this, as we’ll see, is what is making everything seem so bad.


The Paradox of Progress

We live in an interesting time in that, materially, things are arguably better than they have ever been before, yet we all seem to be losing our minds thinking the world is one giant toilet bowl about to be flushed. An irrational sense of hopelessness is spreading across the rich, developed world. It’s a paradox of progress: the better things get, the more anxious and desperate we all seem to feel.9

In recent years, writers such as Steven Pinker and Hans Rosling have been making the case that we’re wrong to feel so pessimistic, that things are, in fact, the best they’ve ever been and likely going to get even better.10 Both men have filled long, heavy books with many charts and graphs that start at one corner and always seem somehow to end up in the opposite corner.11 Both men have explained, at length, the biases and incorrect assumptions we all carry that cause us to feel that things are much worse than they are. Progress, they argue, has continued, uninterrupted, throughout modern history. People are more educated and literate than ever before.12 Violence has trended down for decades, possibly centuries.13 Racism, sexism, discrimination, and violence against women are at their lowest points in recorded history.14 We have more rights than ever before.15 Half the planet has access to the internet.16 Extreme poverty is at an all-time low worldwide.17 Wars are smaller and less frequent than at any other time in recorded history.18 Children are dying less, and people are living longer.19 There’s more wealth than ever before.20 We’ve, like, cured a bunch of diseases and stuff.21

And they’re right. It’s important to know these facts. But reading these books is also kind of like listening to your Uncle Larry prattle on about how much worse things were when he was your age. Even though he’s right, it doesn’t necessarily make you feel any better about your problems.

Because, for all the good news being published today, here are some other surprising statistics: in the United States, symptoms of depression and anxiety are on an eighty-year upswing among young people and a twenty-year upswing among the adult population.22 Not only are people experiencing depression in greater numbers, but they’re experiencing it at earlier ages, with each generation.23 Since 1985, men and women have reported lower levels of life satisfaction.24 Part of that is probably because stress levels have risen over the past thirty years.25 Drug overdoses have recently hit an all-time high as the opioid crisis has wrecked much of the United States and Canada.26 Across the U.S. population, feelings of loneliness and social isolation are up. Nearly half of all Americans now report feeling isolated, left out, or alone in their lives.27 Social trust is also not only down across the developed world but plummeting, meaning fewer people than ever trust their government, the media, or one another.28 In the 1980s, when researchers asked survey participants how many people they had discussed important personal matters with over the previous six months, the most common answer was “three.” By 2006, the most common answer was “zero.”29

Meanwhile, the environment is completely fucked. Nutjobs either have access to nuclear weapons or are a hop, skip, and a jump away from getting them. Extremism across the world continues to grow—in all forms, on both the right and the left, both religious and secular. Conspiracy theorists, citizen militias, survivalists, and “preppers” (as in, prepping for Armageddon) are all becoming more popular subcultures, to the point where they are borderline mainstream.

Basically, we are the safest and most prosperous humans in the history of the world, yet we are feeling more hopeless than ever before. The better things get, the more we seem to despair. It’s the paradox of progress. And perhaps it can be summed up in one startling fact: the wealthier and safer the place you live, the more likely you are to commit suicide.30

The incredible progress made in health, safety, and material wealth over the past few hundred years is not to be denied. But these are statistics about the past, not the future. And that’s where hope inevitably must be found: in our visions of the future.

Because hope is not based on statistics. Hope doesn’t care about the downward trend of gun-related deaths or car accident fatalities. It doesn’t care that there wasn’t a commercial plane crash last year or that literacy hit an all-time high in Mongolia (well, unless you’re Mongolian).31

Hope doesn’t care about the problems that have already been solved. Hope cares only about the problems that still need to be solved. Because the better the world gets, the more we have to lose. And the more we have to lose, the less we feel we have to hope for.

To build and maintain hope, we need three things: a sense of control, a belief in the value of something, and a community.32 “Control” means we feel as though we’re in control of our own life, that we can affect our fate. “Values” means we find something important enough to work toward, something better, that’s worth striving for. And “community” means we are part of a group that values the same things we do and is working toward achieving those things. Without a community, we feel isolated, and our values cease to mean anything. Without values, nothing appears worth pursuing. And without control, we feel powerless to pursue anything. Lose any of the three, and you lose the other two. Lose any of the three, and you lose hope.

For us to understand why we’re suffering through such a crisis of hope today, we need to understand the mechanics of hope, how it is generated and maintained. The next three chapters will look at how we develop these three areas of our lives: our sense of control (chapter 2), our values (chapter 3), and our communities (chapter 4).

We will then return to the original question: what is happening in our world that is causing us to feel worse despite everything consistently getting better?

And the answer might surprise you.





Chapter 2


Self-Control Is an Illusion


It all started with a headache.1

“Elliot” was a successful man, an executive at a successful company. He was well liked by his coworkers and neighbors. He could be charming and disarmingly funny. He was a husband and a father and a friend and took sweet-ass beach vacations.

Except he had headaches, regularly. And these weren’t your typical, pop-an-Advil kind of headaches. These were mind-crunching, corkscrewing headaches, like a wrecking ball banging against the back of your eye sockets.

Elliot took medicine. He took naps. He tried to de-stress and chill out and hang loose and brush it off and suck it up. Yet, the headaches continued. In fact, they only got worse. Soon, they became so severe that Elliot couldn’t sleep at night or work during the day.

Finally, he went to a doctor. The doctor did doctor things and ran doctor tests and received the doctor results and told Elliot the bad news: he had a brain tumor, right there on his frontal lobe. Right there. See it? That gray blotch, in the front. And man, is it a big one. Size of a baseball, I reckon.

The surgeon cut the tumor out, and Elliot went home. He went back to work. He went back to his family and friends. Everything seemed fine and normal.

Then things went horribly wrong.

Elliot’s work performance suffered. Tasks that were once a breeze to him now required mountains of concentration and effort. Simple decisions, such as whether to use a blue pen or a black pen, would consume him for hours. He would make basic errors and leave them unfixed for weeks. He became a scheduling black hole, missing meetings and deadlines as if they were an insult to the fabric of space/time itself.

At first, his coworkers felt bad and covered for him. After all, the guy had just had a tumor the size of a small fruit basket cut out of his head. But then the covering became too much for them, and Elliot’s excuses too unreasonable. You skipped an investor’s meeting to buy a new stapler, Elliot? Really? What were you thinking?2

After months of the botched meetings and the bullshit, the truth was undeniable: Elliot had lost something more than a tumor in the surgery, and as far as his colleagues were concerned, that something was a shitload of company money. So, Elliot was fired.

Meanwhile, his home life wasn’t faring much better. Imagine if you took a deadbeat dad, stuffed him inside a couch potato, lightly glazed it with Family Feud reruns, and baked it at 350°F for twenty-four hours a day. That was Elliot’s new life. He missed his son’s Little League games. He skipped a parent-teacher conference to watch a James Bond marathon on TV. He forgot that his wife generally preferred it if he spoke to her more than once a week.

Fights erupted in Elliot’s marriage along new and unexpected fault lines—except, they couldn’t really be considered fights. Fights require that two people give a shit. And while his wife breathed fire, Elliot had trouble following the plot. Instead of acting with urgency to change or to patch things up, to show that he loved and cared for these people who were his own, he remained isolated and indifferent. It was as though he were living in another area code, one never quite reachable from anywhere on earth.

Eventually, his wife couldn’t take it anymore. Elliot had lost something else besides that tumor, she yelled. And that something was called his goddamn heart. She divorced him and took the kids. And Elliot was alone.

Dejected and confused, Elliot began looking for ways to restart his career. He got sucked into some bad business ventures. A scam artist conned him out of much of his savings. A predatory woman seduced him, convinced him to elope, and then divorced him a year later, making off with half his assets. He loafed around town, settling in increasingly cheaper and shittier apartments until, after a few years, he was effectively homeless. His brother took him in and began supporting him. Friends and family looked on aghast while, over a few short years, a man they had once admired essentially threw his life away. No one could make sense of it. It was undeniable that something in Elliot had changed; that those debilitating headaches had caused more than pain.

The question was, what had changed?

Elliot’s brother chaperoned him from one doctor’s visit to the next. “He’s not himself,” the brother would say. “He has a problem. He seems fine, but he’s not. I promise.”

The doctors did their doctor things and received their doctor results, and unfortunately, they said that Elliot was perfectly normal—or, at least, he fit their definition of normal; above average, even. His CAT scans looked fine. His IQ was still high. His reasoning was solid. His memory was great. He could discuss, at length, the repercussions and consequences of his poor choices. He could converse on a wide range of subjects with humor and charm. His psychiatrist said Elliot wasn’t depressed. On the contrary, he had high self-esteem, and no signs of chronic anxiety or stress—he exhibited almost Zen-like calm in the eye of a hurricane caused by his own negligence.

His brother couldn’t accept this. Something was wrong. Something was missing in him.

Finally, in desperation, Elliot was referred to a famous neuroscientist named Antonio Damasio.

Initially, Antonio Damasio did the same things the other doctors had done: he gave Elliot a bunch of cognitive tests. Memory, reflexes, intelligence, personality, spatial relations, moral reasoning—everything checked out. Elliot passed with flying colors.

Then, Damasio did something to Elliot no other doctor had thought to do: he talked to him—like, really talked to him. He wanted to know everything: every mistake, every error, every regret. How had he lost his job, his family, his house, his savings? Take me through each decision, explain the thought process (or, in this case, the lack of a thought process).

Elliot could explain, at length, what decisions he’d made, but he couldn’t explain the why of those decisions. He could recount facts and sequences of events with perfect fluidity and even a certain dramatic flair, but when asked to analyze his decision making—why did he decide that buying a new stapler was more important than meeting with an investor, why did he decide that James Bond was more interesting than his kids?—he was at a loss. He had no answers. And not only that, he wasn’t even upset about having no answers. In fact, he didn’t care.

This was a man who had lost everything due to his own poor choices and mistakes, who had exhibited no self-control whatsoever, and who was completely aware of the disaster his life had become, and yet he apparently showed no remorse, no self-loathing, not even a little bit of embarrassment. Many people have been driven to suicide for less than what Elliot had endured. Yet there he was, not only comfortable with his own misfortune but indifferent to it.

That’s when Damasio had a brilliant realization: the psychological tests Elliot had undergone were designed to measure his ability to think, but none of the tests was designed to measure his ability to feel. Every doctor had been so concerned about Elliot’s reasoning abilities that no one had stopped to consider that it was Elliot’s capacity for emotion that had been damaged. And even if they had realized it, there was no standardized way of measuring that damage.

One day, one of Damasio’s colleagues printed up a bunch of grotesque and disturbing pictures. There were burn victims, gruesome murder scenes, war-torn cities, and starving children. He then showed Elliot the photos, one by one.

Elliot was completely indifferent. He felt nothing. And the fact that he didn’t care was so shocking that even he had to comment on how fucked up it was. He admitted that he knew for sure that these images would have disturbed him in the past, that his heart would have welled up with empathy and horror, that he would have turned away in disgust. But now? As he sat there, staring at the darkest corruptions of the human experience, Elliot felt nothing.

And this, Damasio discovered, was the problem: while Elliot’s knowledge and reasoning were left intact, the tumor and/or the surgery to remove it had debilitated his ability to empathize and feel. His inner world no longer possessed lightness and darkness but was instead an endless gray miasma. Attending his daughter’s piano recital evoked in him all the vibrancy and joyful fatherly pride of buying a new pair of socks. Losing a million dollars felt exactly the same to him as pumping gas, laundering his sheets, or watching Family Feud. He had become a walking, talking indifference machine. And without that ability to make value judgments, to determine better from worse, no matter how intelligent he was, Elliot had lost his self-control.3

But this raised a huge question: if Elliot’s cognitive abilities (his intelligence, his memory, his attention) were all in perfect shape, why couldn’t he make effective decisions anymore?

This stumped Damasio and his colleagues. We’ve all wished at times that we couldn’t feel emotion, because our emotions often drive us to do stupid shit we later regret. For centuries, psychologists and philosophers assumed that dampening or suppressing our emotions was the solution to all life’s problems. Yet, here was a man stripped of his emotions and empathy entirely, someone who had nothing but his intelligence and reasoning, and his life had quickly degenerated into a total clusterfuck. His case went against all the common wisdom about rational decision making and self-control.

But there was a second, equally perplexing question: If Elliot was still as smart as a whip and could reason his way through problems presented to him, why did his work performance fall off a cliff? Why did his productivity morph into a raging dumpster fire? Why did he essentially abandon his family knowing full well the negative consequences? Even if you don’t give a shit about your wife or your job anymore, you should be able to reason that it’s still important to maintain them, right? I mean, that’s what sociopaths eventually figure out. So, why couldn’t Elliot? Really, how hard is it to show up to a Little League game every once in a while? Somehow, by losing his ability to feel, Elliot had also lost his ability to make decisions. He’d lost the ability to control his own life.

We’ve all had the experience of knowing what we should do yet failing to do it. We’ve all put off important tasks, ignored people we care about, and failed to act in our own self-interest. And usually when we fail to do the things we should, we assume it’s because we can’t sufficiently control our emotions. We’re too undisciplined or we lack knowledge.

Yet Elliot’s case called all this into question. It called into question the very idea of self-control, the idea that we can logically force ourselves to do things that are good for us despite our impulses and emotions.

To generate hope in our lives, we must first feel as though we have control over our lives. We must feel as though we’re following through on what we know is good and right; that we’re chasing after “something better.” Yet many of us struggle with the inability to control ourselves. Elliot’s case would be one of the breakthroughs to understanding why this occurs. This man, poor, isolated and alone; this man staring at photos of broken bodies and earthquake rubble that could easily have been metaphors for his life; this man who had lost everything, absolutely everything, and still cracked a smile to tell about it—this man would be the key to revolutionizing our understanding of the human mind, how we make decisions, and how much self-control we actually have.


The Classic Assumption

Once, when asked about his drinking, the musician Tom Waits famously muttered, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” He appeared to be hammered when he said it. Oh, and he was on national television.4

The frontal lobotomy is a form of brain surgery wherein a hole is drilled into your skull through your nose and then the frontal lobe is gently sliced with an icepick.5 The procedure was invented in 1935 by a neurologist named António Egas Moniz.6 Egas Moniz discovered that if you took people with extreme anxiety, suicidal depression, or other mental health issues (aka crises of hope) and maimed their brain in just the right way, they’d chill the fuck out.

Egas Moniz believed that the lobotomy, once perfected, could cure all mental illness, and he marketed it to the world as such. By end of the 1940s, the procedure was a hit, being performed on tens of thousands of patients all over the world. Egas Moniz would even win a Nobel Prize for his discovery.

But by the 1950s, people began to notice that—and this might sound crazy—drilling a hole through somebody’s face and scraping their brain the same way you clean ice off your windshield can produce a few negative side effects. And by “a few negative side effects,” I mean the patients became goddamn potatoes. While often “curing” patients of their extreme emotional afflictions, the procedure also left them with an inability to focus, make decisions, have careers, make long-term plans, or think abstractly about themselves. Essentially, they became mindlessly satisfied zombies. They became Elliots.

The Soviet Union, of all places, was the first country to outlaw the lobotomy. The Soviets declared the procedure “contrary to human principles” and claimed that it “turned an insane person into an idiot.”7 This was sort of a wake-up call to the rest of the world, because let’s face it, when Joseph Stalin is lecturing you about ethics and human decency, you know you’ve fucked up.

After that, the rest of the world began, slowly, to ban the practice, and by the 1960s, pretty much everyone hated it. The last lobotomy would be performed in the United States in 1967, and the patient would die. Ten years later, a drunken Tom Waits muttered his famous line on television, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Tom Waits was a blistering alcoholic who spent most of the 1970s trying to keep his eyes open and remember where he last left his cigarettes.8 He also found time to write and record seven brilliant albums in this period. He was both prolific and profound, winning awards and selling millions of records that were celebrated worldwide. He was one of those rare artists whose insight into the human condition could be startling.

Waits’s quip about the lobotomy makes us laugh, but there’s a hidden wisdom to it: that he’d rather have the problem of passion with the bottle than have no passion at all; that it’s better to find hope in lowly places than to find none; that without our unruly impulses, we are nothing.

There’s pretty much always been a tacit assumption that our emotions cause all our problems, and that our reason must swoop in to clean up the mess. This line of thinking goes all the way back to Socrates, who declared reason the root of all virtue.9 At the beginning of the Enlightenment, Descartes argued that our reason was separate from our animalistic desires and that it had to learn to control those desires.10 Kant sort of said the same thing.11 Freud, too, except there were a lot of penises involved.12 And when Egas Moniz lobotomized his first patient in 1935, I’m sure he thought he had just discovered a way to do what, for more than two thousand years, philosophers had declared needed to be done: to grant reason dominion over the unruly passions, to help humanity finally exercise some damn control over itself.

This assumption (that we must use our rational mind to dominate our emotions) has trickled down through the centuries and continues to define much of our culture today. Let’s call it the “Classic Assumption.” The Classic Assumption says that if a person is undisciplined, unruly, or malicious, it’s because he lacks the ability to subjugate his feelings, that he is weak-willed or just plain fucked up. The Classic Assumption sees passion and emotion as flaws, errors within the human psyche that must be overcome and fixed within the self.

Today, we usually judge people based on the Classic Assumption. Obese people are ridiculed and shamed because their obesity is seen as a failure of self-control. They know they should be thin, yet they continue to eat. Why? Something must be wrong with them, we assume. Smokers: same deal. Drug addicts receive the same treatment, of course, but often with the extra stigma of being defined as criminals.

Depressed and suicidal people are subjected to the Classic Assumption in a way that’s dangerous, being told that their inability to create hope and meaning in their lives is their own damn fault, that maybe, if they just tried a little harder, hanging themselves by the necktie wouldn’t sound so appealing.

We see succumbing to our emotional impulses as a moral failing. We see a lack of self-control as a sign of a deficient character. Conversely, we celebrate people who beat their emotions into submission. We get collective hard-ons for athletes and businessmen and leaders who are ruthless and robotic in their efficiency. If a CEO sleeps under his desk and doesn’t see his kids for six weeks at a time—fuck yeah, that’s determination! See? Anyone can be successful!

Clearly, it’s not hard to see how the Classic Assumption can lead to some damaging . . . er, assumptions. If the Classic Assumption is true, then we should be able to exhibit self-control, prevent emotional outbursts and crimes of passion, and stave off addiction and indulgences through mental effort alone. And any failure to do so reflects something inherently faulty or damaged within us.

This is why we often develop the false belief that we need to change who we are. Because if we can’t achieve our goals, if we can’t lose the weight or get the promotion or learn the skill, then that signifies some internal deficiency. Therefore, in order to maintain hope, we decide we must change ourselves, become somebody totally new and different. This desire to change ourselves then refills us with hope. The “old me” couldn’t shake that terrible smoking habit, but the “new me” will. And we’re off to the races again.

The constant desire to change yourself then becomes its own sort of addiction: each cycle of “changing yourself” results in similar failures of self-control, therefore making you feel as though you need to “change yourself” all over again. Each cycle refuels you with the hope you’re looking for. Meanwhile, the Classic Assumption, the root of the problem, is never addressed or questioned, let alone thrown out.

Like a bad case of acne, a whole industry has sprouted up over the past couple of centuries around this “change yourself” idea. This industry is replete with false promises and clues to the secrets of happiness, success, and self-control. Yet all the industry does is reinforce the same impulses that drive people to feel inadequate in the first place.13

The truth is that the human mind is far more complex than any “secret.” And you can’t simply change yourself; nor, I would argue, should you always feel you must.

We cling to this narrative about self-control because the belief that we’re in complete control of ourselves is a major source of hope. We want to believe that changing ourselves is as simple as knowing what to change. We want to believe that the ability to do something is as simple as deciding to do it and mustering enough willpower to get there. We want to believe ourselves to be the masters of our own destiny, capable of anything we can dream.

This is what made Damasio’s discovery with “Elliot” such a big deal: it showed that the Classic Assumption is wrong. If the Classic Assumption were true, if life were as simple as learning to control one’s emotions and make decisions based on reason, then Elliot should have been an unstoppable badass, tirelessly industrious, and a ruthless decision maker. Similarly, if the Classic Assumption were true, lobotomies should be all the rage. We’d all be saving up for them as if they were boob jobs.

But lobotomies don’t work, and Elliot’s life was ruined.

The fact is that we require more than willpower to achieve self-control. It turns out that our emotions are instrumental in our decision making and our actions. We just don’t always realize it.


You Have Two Brains, and They’re Really Bad at Talking to Each Other

Let’s pretend your mind is a car. Let’s call it the “Consciousness Car.” Your Consciousness Car is driving along the road of life, and there are intersections, on-ramps, and off-ramps. These roads and intersections represent the decisions you must make as you drive, and they will determine your destination.

Now, there are two travelers in your Consciousness Car: a Thinking Brain and a Feeling Brain.14 The Thinking Brain represents your conscious thoughts, your ability to make calculations, and your ability to reason through various options and express ideas through language. Your Feeling Brain represents your emotions, impulses, intuition, and instincts. While your Thinking Brain is calculating payment schedules on your credit card statement, your Feeling Brain wants to sell everything and run away to Tahiti.

Each of your two brains has its strengths and weaknesses. The Thinking Brain is conscientious, accurate, and impartial. It is methodical and rational, but it is also slow. It requires a lot of effort and energy, and like a muscle, it must be built up over time and can become fatigued if overexerted.15 The Feeling Brain, however, arrives at its conclusions quickly and effortlessly. The problem is that it is often inaccurate and irrational. The Feeling Brain is also a bit of a drama queen and has a bad habit of overreacting.

When we think of ourselves and our decision making, we generally assume that the Thinking Brain is driving our Consciousness Car and the Feeling Brain is sitting in the passenger seat shouting out where it wants to go. We’re driving along, accomplishing our goals and figuring out how to get home, when that damn Feeling Brain sees something shiny or sexy or fun-looking and yanks the steering wheel in another direction, thus causing us to careen into oncoming traffic, harming other people’s Consciousness Cars as well as our own.

This is the Classic Assumption, the belief that our reason is ultimately in control of our life and that we must train our emotions to sit the fuck down and shut up while the adult is driving. We then applaud this kidnapping and abuse of our emotions by congratulating ourselves on our self-control.

But our Consciousness Car doesn’t work that way. When his tumor was removed, Elliot’s Feeling Brain got thrown out of his moving mental vehicle, and nothing got better for him. In fact, his Consciousness Car stalled out. Lobotomy patients had their Feeling Brains tied up and thrown in the car’s trunk, and that merely caused them to become sedated and lazy, unable to get out of bed or even dress themselves much of the time.

Meanwhile, Tom Waits was pretty much all Feeling Brain all the time, and he got paid copious amounts of money to be drunk on television talk shows. So, there’s that.

Here’s the truth: the Feeling Brain is driving our Consciousness Car. And I don’t care how scientific you think you are or how many letters you have after your name, you’re one of us, bucko. You’re a crazy Feeling Brain–piloted meat robot just like the rest of us. Keep your bodily fluids to yourself, please.

The Feeling Brain drives our Consciousness Car because, ultimately, we are moved to action only by emotion. That’s because action is emotion.16 Emotion is the biological hydraulic system that pushes our bodies into movement. Fear is not this magical thing your brain invents. No, it happens in our bodies. It’s the tightening of your stomach, the tensing of your muscles, the release of adrenaline, the overwhelming desire for space and emptiness around your body. While the Thinking Brain exists solely within the synaptic arrangements inside your skull, the Feeling Brain is the wisdom and stupidity of the entire body. Anger pushes your body to move. Anxiety pulls it into retreat. Joy lights up the facial muscles, while sadness attempts to shade your existence from view. Emotion inspires action, and action inspires emotion. The two are inseparable.

This leads to the simplest and most obvious answer to the timeless question, why don’t we do things we know we should do?

Because we don’t feel like it.

Every problem of self-control is not a problem of information or discipline or reason but, rather, of emotion. Self-control is an emotional problem; laziness is an emotional problem; procrastination is an emotional problem; underachievement is an emotional problem; impulsiveness is an emotional problem.

This sucks. Because emotional problems are much harder to deal with than logical ones. There are equations to help you calculate the monthly payments on your car loan. There are no equations to help you end a bad relationship.

And as you’ve probably figured out by now, intellectually understanding how to change your behavior doesn’t change your behavior. (Trust me, I’ve read like twelve books on nutrition and am still chomping on a burrito as I write this.) We know we should stop smoking cigarettes or stop eating sugar or stop talking shit about our friends behind their backs, but we still do it. And it’s not because we don’t know better; it’s because we don’t feel better.

Emotional problems are irrational, meaning they cannot be reasoned with. And this brings us to even worse news: emotional problems can only have emotional solutions. It’s all up to the Feeling Brain. And if you’ve seen how most people’s Feeling Brains drive, that’s pretty fucking scary.

Meanwhile, while all this is going on, the Thinking Brain is sitting in the passenger seat imagining itself to be totally in control of the situation. If the Feeling Brain is our driver, then the Thinking Brain is the navigator. It has stacks of maps to reality that it has drawn and accumulated throughout life. It knows how to double back and find alternate routes to the same destination. It knows where the bad turns are and where to find the shortcuts. It correctly sees itself as the intelligent, rational brain, and it believes that this somehow privileges it to be in control of the Consciousness Car. But, alas, it doesn’t. As Daniel Kahneman once put it, the Thinking Brain is “the supporting character who imagines herself to be the hero.”17

Even if sometimes they can’t stand each other, our two brains need each other. The Feeling Brain generates the emotions that cause us to move into action, and the Thinking Brain suggests where to direct that action. The keyword here is suggests. While the Thinking Brain is not able to control the Feeling Brain, it is able to influence it, sometimes to a great degree. The Thinking Brain can convince the Feeling Brain to pursue a new road to a better future, to pull a U-turn when it has made a mistake, or to consider new routes or territories once ignored. But the Feeling Brain is stubborn, and if it wants to go in one direction, it will drive that way no matter how many facts or data the Thinking Brain provides. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt compares the two brains to an elephant and its rider: the rider can gently steer and pull the elephant in a particular direction, but ultimately the elephant is going to go where it wants to go.18


The Clown Car

The Feeling Brain, as great as it is, has its dark side. In the Consciousness Car, your Feeling Brain is like a verbally abusive boyfriend who refuses to pull over and ask for directions—he hates being told where to go and he will absolutely make you fucking miserable if you question his driving.

In order to avoid these psychological kerfuffles, and to maintain a sense of hope, the Thinking Brain develops a tendency to draw maps explaining or justifying where the Feeling Brain has already decided it wants to go. If the Feeling Brain wants ice cream, instead of contradicting it with facts about processed sugar and excess calories, your Thinking Brain decides, “You know what, I worked hard today. I deserve some ice cream,” and your Feeling Brain responds with a sense of ease and satisfaction. If your Feeling Brain decides that your partner is an asshole and you’ve done nothing wrong, your Thinking Brain’s immediate reaction will be to recall instances when you, in fact, were a beacon of patience and humility while your partner was secretly conspiring to ruin your life.

In this way, the two brains develop a really unhealthy relationship that might resemble your mom and dad on road trips when you were a kid. The Thinking Brain makes shit up that the Feeling Brain wants to hear. And in return, the Feeling Brain promises not to careen off the side of the road, killing everyone.

It’s incredibly easy to let your Thinking Brain fall into the trap of merely drawing the maps the Feeling Brain wants to follow. This is called the “self-serving bias,” and it’s the basis for pretty much everything awful about humanity.

Usually, the self-serving bias simply makes you prejudiced and a little bit self-centered. You assume that what feels right is right. You make snap judgments about people, places, groups, and ideas, many of which are unfair or even a little bit bigoted.

But in its extreme form, the self-serving bias can become outright delusion, causing you to believe in a reality that is not there, smudging memories and exaggerating facts, all in the service of the Feeling Brain’s never-ending cravings. If the Thinking Brain is weak and/or uneducated, or if the Feeling Brain is riled up, the Thinking Brain will succumb to the Feeling Brain’s fiery whims and dangerous driving. It will lose the ability to think for itself or to contradict the Feeling Brain’s conclusions.

This effectively turns your Consciousness Car into a Clown Car, with big, springy red wheels and circus music playing over a loudspeaker wherever you go.19 Your Consciousness Car becomes a Clown Car when your Thinking Brain has completely capitulated to your Feeling Brain, when your life’s pursuits are determined purely by self-gratification, when truth warps into a cartoon of self-serving assumptions, when all beliefs and principles are lost in a sea of nihilism.

The Clown Car invariably drives toward addiction, narcissism, and compulsion. People whose minds are Clown Cars are easily manipulated by whatever person or group makes them feel good consistently—whether it is a religious leader, politician, self-help guru, or sinister internet forum. A Clown Car will gladly steamroll other Consciousness Cars (i.e., other people) with its big, red rubbery tires because its Thinking Brain will justify this by saying they deserved it—they were evil, inferior, or part of some made-up problem.

Some Clown Cars merely drive toward fun—they’re all about drinking and fucking and partying. Others drive toward power. These are the most dangerous Clown Cars, as their Thinking Brains set to work justifying their abuse and subjugation of others through intellectual-sounding theories about economics, politics, race, genetics, gender, biology, history, and so on. A Clown Car will sometimes pursue hate, too, because hate brings its own odd satisfaction and self-assurance. Such a mind is prone to self-righteous anger, as having an external target reassures it of its own moral superiority. Inevitably, it drives toward the destruction of others because it is only through the destruction and subjugation of the outer world that its endless inner impulses can be satisfied.

It’s hard to pull someone out of the Clown Car once they’re in it. In the Clown Car, the Thinking Brain has been bullied and abused by the Feeling Brain for so long that it develops a sort of Stockholm syndrome—it can’t imagine a life beyond pleasing and justifying the Feeling Brain. It can’t fathom contradicting the Feeling Brain or challenging it on where it’s going, and it resents you for suggesting that it should. With the Clown Car, there’s no independent thought and no ability to measure contradiction or switch beliefs or opinions. In a sense, the person with a Clown Car mind ceases to have an individual identity at all.

This is why cultish leaders always start by encouraging people to shut off their Thinking Brains as much as possible. Initially, this feels profound to people because the Thinking Brain is often correcting the Feeling Brain, showing it where it took a wrong turn. So, silencing the Thinking Brain will feel extremely good for a short period. And people are always mistaking what feels good for what is good.

The metaphorical Clown Car is what inspired ancient philosophers to warn against the overindulgence and worship of feelings.20 It was the fear of the Clown Car that inspired the Greeks and Romans to teach of the virtues and, later, the Christian Church to push a message of abstinence and self-denial.21 Both classical philosophers and the Church had seen the destruction wrought by narcissistic and megalomaniacal men in power. And they all believed that the only way to manage the Feeling Brain was to deprive it, to give it as little oxygen as possible, thus preventing it from exploding and destroying the world around it. This thinking gave birth to the Classic Assumption: that the only way to be a good person is through dominance of the Thinking Brain over the Feeling Brain, the championing of reason over emotion, duty over desire.

For most of human history, people have been brutal, superstitious, and uneducated. People in the Middle Ages used to torture cats for sport and take their kids to watch the local burglar get his nuts chopped off in the town square.22 People were sadistic, impulsive fuckers. For most of history, the world has not been a pleasant place to live, and that was largely because everyone’s Feeling Brains were running amok.23 The Classic Assumption was often the only thing that stood between civilization and total anarchy.

Then something happened in the last couple of hundred years. People built trains and cars and invented central heating and stuff. Economic prosperity outran human impulses. People were no longer worried about not being able to eat or about being killed for insulting the king. Life was more comfortable and easier. People now had a ton of free time to sit and think and worry about all sorts of existential shit that they had never considered before.

As a result, several movements arose in the late twentieth century championing the Feeling Brain.24 And indeed, liberating the Feeling Brain from the Thinking Brain’s suppression was incredibly therapeutic for millions of people (and continues to be so today).

The problem was that people began to go too far the other way. They went from recognizing and honoring their feelings to the other extreme of believing that their feelings were the only thing that mattered. This has been particularly true for white, middle-class yuppies who were raised under the Classic Assumption, grew up miserable, and then got in touch with their Feeling Brains at a much later age. Because these people never had any real problems in their lives other than feeling bad, they erroneously came to believe that feelings were all that mattered and that the Thinking Brain’s maps were merely inconvenient distractions from those feelings. Many of these people called this shutting off of their Thinking Brains in favor of their Feeling Brains “spiritual growth,” and convinced themselves that being self-absorbed twats brought them closer to enlightenment,25 when, really, they were indulging the old Feeling Brain. It was the same old Clown Car with a new, spiritual-looking paint job.26

The overindulgence of emotion leads to a crisis of hope, but so does the repression of emotion.27

The person who denies his Feeling Brain numbs himself to the world around him. By rejecting his emotions, he rejects making value judgments, that is, deciding that one thing is better than another. As a result, he becomes indifferent to life and the results of his decisions. He struggles to engage with others. His relationships suffer. And eventually, his chronic indifference leads him to an unpleasant visit with the Uncomfortable Truth. After all, if nothing is more or less important, then there’s no reason to do anything. And if there’s no reason to do anything, then why live at all?

Meanwhile, the person who denies his Thinking Brain becomes impulsive and selfish, warping reality to conform to his whims and fancies, which are then never satiated. His crisis of hope is that no matter how much he eats, drinks, dominates, or fucks, it will never be enough—it will never matter enough, it will never feel significant enough. He will be on a perpetual treadmill of desperation, always running, though never moving. And if at any point he stops, the Uncomfortable Truth immediately catches up to him.

I know. I’m being dramatic again. But I have to be, Thinking Brain. Otherwise, the Feeling Brain will get bored and close this book. Ever wonder why a page-turner is a page-turner? It’s not you turning those pages, idiot; it’s your Feeling Brain. It’s the anticipation and suspense; the joy of discovery and the satisfaction of resolution. Good writing is writing that is able to speak to and stimulate both brains at the same time.

And this is the whole problem: speaking to both brains, integrating our brains into a cooperative, coordinated, unified whole. Because if self-control is an illusion of the Thinking Brain’s overblown self-regard, then it’s self-acceptance that will save us—accepting our emotions and working with them rather than against them. But to develop that self-acceptance, we have to do some work, Thinking Brain. Let’s talk. Meet me in the next section.


An Open Letter to Your Thinking Brain

Hey, Thinking Brain.

How are things? How’s the family? How’d that tax situation work out?

Oh, wait. Never mind. I forgot—I don’t fucking care.

Look, I know there’s something the Feeling Brain is screwing up for you. Maybe it’s an important relationship. Maybe it’s causing you to make embarrassing phone calls at 3:00 a.m. Maybe it’s constantly medicating itself with substances it probably shouldn’t be using. I know there’s something you wish you could control about yourself but can’t. And I imagine, at times, this problem causes you to lose hope.

But listen, Thinking Brain, those things you hate so much about your Feeling Brain—the cravings, the impulses, the horrible decision making? You need to find a way to empathize with them. Because that’s the only language the Feeling Brain really understands: empathy. The Feeling Brain is a sensitive creature; it’s made out of your damn feelings, after all. I wish it weren’t true. I wish you could just show it a spreadsheet to make it understand—you know, like we understand. But you can’t.

Instead of bombarding the Feeling Brain with facts and reason, start by asking how it’s feeling. Say something like “Hey, Feeling Brain, how do you feel about going to the gym today?” or “How do you feel about changing careers?” or “How do you feel about selling everything and moving to Tahiti?”

The Feeling Brain won’t respond with words. No, the Feeling Brain is too quick for words. Instead, it will respond with feelings. Yeah, I know that’s obvious, but sometimes you’re kind of a dumbass, Thinking Brain.

The Feeling Brain might respond with a feeling of laziness or a feeling of anxiety. There might even be multiple emotions, a little bit of excitement with a pinch of anger thrown into the mix. Whatever it is, you, as the Thinking Brain (aka, the responsible one in this cranium), need to remain nonjudgmental in the face of whatever feelings arise. Feeling lazy? That’s okay; we all feel lazy sometimes. Feeling self-loathing? Perhaps that’s an invitation to take the conversation further. The gym can wait.

It’s important to let the Feeling Brain air out all its icky, twisted feelings. Just get them out into the open where they can breathe, because the more they breathe, the weaker their grip is on the steering wheel of your Consciousness Car.28

Then, once you feel you’ve reached a point of understanding with your Feeling Brain, it’s time to appeal to it in a way it understands: through feelings. Maybe think about all the benefits of some desired new behavior. Maybe mention all the sexy, shiny, fun things at the desired destination. Maybe remind the Feeling Brain how good it feels to have exercised, how great it will feel to look good in a bathing suit this summer, how much you respect yourself when you’ve followed through on your goals, how happy you are when you live by your values, when you act as an example to the ones you love.

Basically, you need to bargain with your Feeling Brain the way you’d bargain with a Moroccan rug seller: it needs to believe it’s getting a good deal, or else there’ll just be a lot of hand waving and shouting with no result. Maybe you agree to do something the Feeling Brain likes, as long as it does something it doesn’t like. Watch your favorite TV show, but only at the gym while you’re on the treadmill. Go out with friends, but only if you’ve paid your bills for the month.29

Start easy. Remember, the Feeling Brain is highly sensitive, and completely unreasonable.

When you offer something easy with an emotional benefit (e.g., feeling good after a workout; pursuing a career that feels significant; being admired and respected by your kids), the Feeling Brain will respond with another emotion, either positive or negative. If the emotion is positive, the Feeling Brain will be willing to drive a little bit in that direction—but only a little bit! Remember: feelings never last. That’s why you start small. Just put on your gym shoes today, Feeling Brain. That’s all. Let’s just see what happens.30

If the Feeling Brain’s response is negative, you simply acknowledge that negative emotion and offer another compromise. See how the Feeling Brain responds. Then rinse and repeat.

But whatever you do, do not fight the Feeling Brain. That just makes things worse. For one, you won’t win, ever. The Feeling Brain is always driving. Second, fighting with the Feeling Brain about feeling bad will only cause the Feeling Brain to feel even worse. So, why would you do that? You were supposed to be the smart one, Thinking Brain.

This dialogue with your Feeling Brain will continue back and forth like this, on and off, for days, weeks, or maybe even months. Hell, years. This dialogue between the brains takes practice. For some, the practice will be recognizing what emotion the Feeling Brain is putting out there. Some people’s Thinking Brains have ignored their Feeling Brains for so long that it takes them a while to learn how to listen again.

Others will have the opposite problem: They will have to train their Thinking Brain to speak up, force it to propose an independent thought (a new direction) that’s separate from the Feeling Brain’s feelings. They will have to ask themselves, what if my Feeling Brain is wrong to feel this way? and then consider the alternatives. This will be difficult for them at first. But the more this dialogue occurs, the more the two brains will begin to listen to each other. The Feeling Brain will start giving off different emotions, and the Thinking Brain will have a better understanding of how to help the Feeling Brain navigate the road of life.

This is what’s referred to in psychology as “emotional regulation,” and it’s basically learning how to put a bunch of fucking guardrails and One Way signs along your road of life to keep your Feeling Brain from careening off a cliff.31 It’s hard work, but it’s arguably the only work.

Because you don’t get to control your feelings, Thinking Brain. Self-control is an illusion. It’s an illusion that occurs when both brains are aligned and pursuing the same course of action. It’s an illusion designed to give people hope. And when the Thinking Brain isn’t aligned with the Feeling Brain, people feel powerless, and the world around them begins to feel hopeless. The only way you consistently nail that illusion is by consistently communicating and aligning the brains around the same values. It’s a skill, much the same as playing water polo or juggling knives is a skill. It takes work. And there will be failures along the way. You might slice your arm open and bleed everywhere. But that’s just the cost of admission.

But here’s what you do have, Thinking Brain. You may not have self-control, but you do have meaning control. This is your superpower. This is your gift. You get to control the meaning of your impulses and feelings. You get to decipher them however you see fit. You get to draw the map. And this is incredibly powerful, because it’s the meaning that we ascribe to our feelings that can often alter how the Feeling Brain reacts to them.

And this is how you produce hope. This is how you produce a sense that the future can be fruitful and pleasant: by interpreting the shit the Feeling Brain slings at you in a profound and useful way. Instead of justifying and enslaving yourself to the impulses, challenge them and analyze them. Change their character and their shape.

This is basically what good therapy is, of course. Self-acceptance and emotional intelligence and all that. Actually, this whole “teach your Thinking Brain to decipher and cooperate with your Feeling Brain instead of judging him and thinking he’s an evil piece of shit” is the basis for CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) and a lot of other fun acronyms that clinical psychologists invented to make our lives better.

Our crises of hope often start with a basic sense that we do not have control over ourselves or our destiny. We feel victims to the world around us or, worse, to our own minds. We fight our Feeling Brain, trying to beat it into submission. Or we do the opposite and follow it mindlessly. We ridicule ourselves and hide from the world because of the Classic Assumption. And in many ways, the affluence and connectivity of the modern world only make the pain of the illusion of self-control that much worse.

But this is your mission, Thinking Brain, should you choose to accept it: Engage the Feeling Brain on its own terms. Create an environment that can bring about the Feeling Brain’s best impulses and intuition, rather than its worst. Accept and work with, rather than against, whatever the Feeling Brain spews at you.

Everything else (all the judgments and assumptions and self-aggrandizement) is an illusion. It was always an illusion. You don’t have control, Thinking Brain. You never did, and you never will. Yet, you needn’t lose hope.

Antonio Damasio ended up writing a celebrated book called Descartes’ Error about his experiences with “Elliot,” and much of his other research. In it, he argues that the same way the Thinking Brain produces a logical, factual form of knowledge, the Feeling Brain develops its own type of value-laden knowledge.32 The Thinking Brain makes associations among facts, data, and observations. Similarly, the Feeling Brain makes value judgments based on those same facts, data, and observations. The Feeling Brain decides what is good and what is bad; what is desirable and what is undesirable; and most important, what we deserve and what we don’t deserve.

The Thinking Brain is objective and factual. The Feeling Brain is subjective and relative. And no matter what we do, we can never translate one form of knowledge into the other.33 This is the real problem of hope. It’s rare that we don’t understand intellectually how to cut back on carbs, or wake up earlier, or stop smoking. It’s that somewhere inside our Feeling Brain, we have decided that we don’t deserve to do those things, that we are unworthy of doing them. And that’s why we feel so bad about them.

This feeling of unworthiness is usually the result of some bad shit happening to us at some point. We suffer through some terrible stuff, and our Feeling Brain decides that we deserved those bad experiences. Therefore, it sets out, despite the Thinking Brain’s better knowledge, to repeat and reexperience that suffering.

This is the fundamental problem of self-control. This is the fundamental problem of hope—not an uneducated Thinking Brain, but an uneducated Feeling Brain, a Feeling Brain that has adopted and accepted poor value judgments about itself and the world. And this is the real work of anything that even resembles psychological healing: getting our values straight with ourselves so that we can get our values straight with the world.

Put another way, the problem isn’t that we don’t know how not to get punched in the face. The problem is that, at some point, likely a long time ago, we got punched in face, and instead of punching back, we decided we deserved it.





Chapter 3


Newton’s Laws of Emotion


The first time Isaac Newton got hit in the face, he was standing in a field. His uncle had been explaining to him why wheat should be planted in diagonal rows, but Isaac wasn’t listening. He was gazing into the sun, wondering what the light was made of.

He was seven years old.1

His uncle backhanded him so hard across his left cheek that Isaac’s sense of self temporarily broke upon the ground on which his body fell. He lost any feeling of personal cohesion. And as the parts of his psyche put themselves back together, some secret piece of himself remained in the dirt, left behind in a place from which it would never be recovered.

Isaac’s father had died before he was born, and his mother soon abandoned her son to marry some old rich guy the next village over. As a result, Isaac spent his formative years being shuffled among uncles, cousins, and grandparents. No one particularly wanted him. Few knew what to do with him. He was a burden. Love came difficultly, and usually not at all.

Isaac’s uncle was an uneducated drunk, but he did know how to count hedges and rows in fields. It was his one intellectual skill, and because of this, he did it probably more often than he needed to. Isaac often tagged along to these row-counting sessions because it was the only time his uncle ever paid attention to him. And like water in a desert, any attention the boy got he desperately soaked in.

As it turned out, the boy was a kind of prodigy. By age eight, he could project the amount of feed required to sustain the sheep and pigs for the following season. By nine, he could rattle off the top of his head calculations for hectares of wheat, barley, and potatoes.

By age ten, Isaac had decided that farming was stupid and instead turned his attention to calculating the exact trajectory of the sun throughout the seasons. His uncle didn’t care about the exact trajectory of the sun because it wouldn’t put food on the table—at least not directly—so, again, he hit Isaac.

School didn’t make things any better. Isaac was pale and scrawny and absentminded. He lacked social skills. He was into nerdy shit like sundials, Cartesian planes, and determining whether the moon was actually a sphere. While the other kids played cricket or chased one another through the woods, Isaac stood staring for hours into local streams, wondering how the eyeball was capable of seeing light.

Isaac Newton’s early life was one hit after another. And with each blow, his Feeling Brain learned to feel an immutable truth: that there must be something inherently wrong with him. Why else would his parents have abandoned him? Why else would his peers ridicule him? What other explanation for his near-constant solitude? While his Thinking Brain occupied itself drawing fanciful graphs and charting the lunar eclipses, his Feeling Brain silently internalized the knowledge that there was something fundamentally broken about this small English boy from Lincolnshire.

One day, he wrote in his school notebook, “I am a little fellow. Pale and weak. There is no room for me. Not in the house or in the bottom of hell. What can I do? What am I good for? I cannot but weep.”2

Up until this point, everything you’ve read about Newton is true—or at least highly plausible. But let’s pretend for a moment that there’s a parallel universe. And let’s say that in this parallel universe there is another Isaac Newton, much like our own. He still comes from a broken and abusive family. He still lives a life of angry isolation. He still prodigiously measures and calculates everything he encounters.

But let’s say that instead of obsessively measuring and calculating the external, natural world, this Parallel Universe Newton decides to obsessively measure and calculate the internal, psychological world, the world of the human mind and heart.

This isn’t a huge leap of the imagination, as the victims of abuse are often the keenest observers of human nature. For you and me, people-watching may be something fun to do on a random Sunday in the park. But for the abused, it’s a survival skill. For them, violence might erupt at any moment, therefore, they develop a keen Spidey sense to protect themselves. A lilt in someone’s voice, the rise of an eyebrow, the depth of a sigh—anything can set off their internal alarm.

So, let’s imagine this Parallel Universe Newton, this “Emo Newton,” turned his obsession toward the people around him. He kept notebooks, cataloging all the observable behaviors of his peers and family. He scribbled relentlessly, documenting every action, every word. He filled hundreds of pages with inane observations of the kind of stuff people don’t even realize they do. Emo Newton hoped that if measurement could be used to predict and control the natural world, the shapes and configurations of the sun and moon and stars, then it should also be able to predict and control the internal, emotional world.

And through his observations, Emo Newton realized something painful that we all kind of know, but that few of us ever want to admit: that people are liars, all of us. We lie constantly and habitually.3 We lie about important things and trifling things. And we usually don’t lie out of malice—rather, we lie to others because we’re in such a habit of lying to ourselves.4

Isaac noted that light refracted through people’s hearts in ways that they themselves did not seem to see; that people said they loved those whom they appeared to hate; professed to believe one thing while doing another; imagined themselves righteous while committing acts of the grandest dishonesty and cruelty. Yet, in their own minds, they somehow believed their actions to be consistent and true.

Isaac decided that no one could be trusted. Ever. He calculated that his pain was inversely proportional to the distance squared he put between himself and the world. Therefore, he kept to himself, staying in no one’s orbit, spinning out and away from the gravitational tug of any other human heart. He had no friends; nor, he decided, did he want any. He concluded that the world was a bleak, wretched place and that the only value to his pathetic life was his ability to document and calculate that wretchedness.

For all his surliness, Isaac certainly didn’t lack ambition. He wanted to know the trajectory of men’s hearts, the velocity of their pain. He wished to know the force of their values and the mass of their hopes. And most important, he wanted to understand the relationships among all these elements.

He decided to write Newton’s Three Laws of Emotion.5





NEWTON’S FIRST LAW OF EMOTION


For Every Action, There Is an Equal and Opposite Emotional Reaction


Imagine that I punch you in the face. No reason. No justification. Just pure violence.

Your instinctual reaction might be to retaliate in some way. Maybe it’d be physical: you’d punch me back. Maybe it’d be verbal: you’d call me a bunch of four-letter words. Or maybe your retaliation would be social: you’d call the police or some other authority and have me punished for assaulting you.

Regardless of your response, you would feel a rush of negative emotion directed toward me. And rightly so—clearly, I’m an awful person. After all, the idea that I get to cause you pain with no justification, without your deserving pain, generates a sense of injustice between us. A kind of moral gap opens between us: the sense that one of us is inherently righteous, and the other is an inferior piece of shit.6

Pain causes moral gaps. And it’s not just between people. If a dog bites you, your instinct is to punish it. If you stub your toe on a coffee table, what do you do? You yell at the damn coffee table. If your home is washed away in a flood, you are overcome with grief and become furious at God, the universe, life itself.

These are moral gaps. They are a sense that something wrong has just happened and you (or someone else) deserve to be made whole again. Wherever there is pain, there is always an inherent sense of superiority/inferiority. And there’s always pain.

When confronted with moral gaps, we develop overwhelming emotions toward equalization, or a return to moral equality. These desires for equalization take the form of a sense of deserving. Because I punched you, you feel I deserve to be punched back or punished in some way. This feeling (of my deserving pain) will cause you to have strong emotions about me (most likely anger). You will also have strong emotions around the feeling that you didn’t deserve to be punched, that you did no wrong, and that you deserve better treatment from me and everyone else around you. These feelings might take the form of sadness, self-pity, or confusion.

This whole sense of “deserving” something is a value judgment we make in the face of a moral gap. We decide that something is better than something else; that one person is more righteous or just than another; that one event is less desirable than another. Moral gaps are where our values are born.

Now, let’s pretend I apologize to you for punching you. I say, “Hey, reader, that was totally unfair and, wow, I was way out of line. That will never, ever happen again. And as a symbol of my overwhelming regret and guilt—here, I baked you a cake. Oh, and here’s a hundred bucks. Enjoy.”

Let’s also pretend that this is somehow satisfying to you. You accept my apology and my cake and the hundred dollars and genuinely feel that everything is fine. We’ve now “equalized.” The moral gap that was between us is gone. I’ve “made up” for it. You might even say we’re even—neither of us is a better or worse person than the other, neither of us deserves better or worse treatment than the other any longer. We’re operating on the same moral plane.

Equalizing like this restores hope. It means that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with you or wrong with the world. That you can go about your day with a sense of self-control, a hundred bucks, and a sweet-ass cake.

Now let’s imagine another scenario. This time, instead of punching you, let’s say I buy you a house.

Yes, reader, I just bought you a fucking house.

This will open up another moral gap between us. But instead of an overwhelming feeling of wanting to equalize the pain I’ve caused you, you will instead experience an overwhelming feeling of wanting to equalize the joy I’ve created. You might hug me, say “thank you” a hundred times, give me a gift in return, or promise to babysit my cat from now until eternity.

Or, if you’re particularly well mannered (and have some self-control), you may even attempt to refuse my offer to buy you a house because you recognize that it will open up a moral gap that you will never be able to surmount. You may acknowledge this by saying to me, “Thank you, but absolutely not. There’s no way for me ever to repay you.”

As with the negative moral gap, with the positive moral gap you will feel indebted to me, that you “owe me” something, that I deserve something good or that you need to “make it up” to me somehow. You will have intense feelings of gratitude and appreciation in my presence. You might even shed a tear of joy. (Aw, reader!)

It’s our natural psychological inclination to equalize across moral gaps, to reciprocate actions: positive for positive; negative for negative. The forces that impel us to fill those gaps are our emotions. In this sense, every action demands an equal and opposite emotional reaction. This is Newton’s First Law of Emotion.

Newton’s First Law is constantly dictating the flow of our lives because it is the algorithm by which our Feeling Brain interprets the world.7 If a movie causes more pain than it relieves, you become bored, or perhaps even angry. (Maybe you even attempt to equalize by demanding your money back.) If your mother forgets your birthday, maybe you equalize by ignoring her for the next six months. Or, if you’re more mature, you communicate your disappointment to her.8 If your favorite sports team loses in a horrible way, you will feel compelled to attend fewer games, or to cheer for them less. If you discover you have a talent for drawing, the admiration and satisfaction you derive from your competence will inspire you to invest time, energy, emotion, and money into the craft.9 If your country elects a bozo whom you can’t stand, you will feel a disconnect with your nation and government and even other citizens. You will also feel as though you are owed something in return for putting up with terrible policies.

Equalization is present in every experience because the drive to equalize is emotion itself. Sadness is a feeling of powerlessness to make up for a perceived loss. Anger is the desire to equalize through force and aggression. Happiness is feeling liberated from pain, while guilt is the feeling that you deserve some pain that never arrived.10

This desire for equalization underlies our sense of justice. It’s been codified throughout the ages into rules and laws, such as the Babylonian king Hammurabi’s classic “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” or the biblical Golden Rule, “Do unto others what you would have done unto you.” In evolutionary biology, it’s known as “reciprocal altruism,”11 and in game theory, it’s called a “tit for tat” strategy.12

Newton’s First Law generates our sense of morality. It underlies our perceptions of fairness. It is the bedrock of every human culture. And . . .

It is the operating system of the Feeling Brain.

While our Thinking Brain creates factual knowledge around observation and logic, the Feeling Brain creates our values around our experiences of pain. Experiences that cause us pain create a moral gap within our minds, and our Feeling Brain deems those experiences inferior and undesirable. Experiences that relieve pain create a moral gap in the opposite direction, and our Feeling Brain deems those experiences superior and desirable.

One way to think about it is that the Thinking Brain makes lateral connections between events (sameness, contrasts, cause/effect, etc.), while the Feeling Brain makes hierarchical connections (better/worse, more desirable/less desirable, morally superior/morally inferior).13 Our Thinking Brain thinks horizontally (how are these things related?), while our Feeling Brain thinks vertically (which of these things is better/worse?). Our Thinking Brain decides how things are, and our Feeling Brain decides how things ought to be.

When we have experiences, our Feeling Brain creates a sort of value hierarchy for them.14 It’s as though we have a massive bookshelf in our subconscious where the best and most important experiences in life (with family, friends, burritos) are on the top shelf and the least desirable experiences (death, taxes, indigestion) are on the bottom. Our Feeling Brain then makes its decisions by simply pursuing experiences on the highest shelf possible.

Both brains have access to the value hierarchy. While the Feeling Brain determines what shelf something is on, the Thinking Brain is able to point out how certain experiences are connected and to suggest how the value hierarchy should be reorganized. This is essentially what “growth” is: reprioritizing one’s value hierarchy in an optimal way.15

For example, I once had a friend who was probably the hardest partier I’d ever known. She would stay out all night and then go straight to work from the party in the morning, with zero hours of sleep. She thought it lame to wake up early or stay home on a Friday night. Her value hierarchy went something like this:

Really awesome DJs

Really good drugs

Work

Sleep



One could predict her behavior solely from this hierarchy. She’d rather work than sleep. She’d rather party and get fucked up than work. And everything was about the music.

Then she did one of those volunteer abroad things, where young people spend a couple of months working with orphans in a Third World country and—well, that changed everything. The experience was so emotionally powerful that it completely rearranged her value hierarchy. Her hierarchy now looked something like this:

Saving children from unnecessary suffering

Work

Sleep

Parties



And suddenly, as if by magic, the parties stopped being fun. Why? Because they interfered with her new top value: helping suffering kids. She switched careers and was all about work now. She stayed in most nights. She didn’t drink or do drugs. She slept well—after all, she needed tons of energy to save the world.

Her party friends looked at her and pitied her; they judged her by their values, which were her old values. Poor party girl has to go to bed and get up for work every morning. Poor party girl can’t stay out doing MDMA every weekend.

But here’s the funny thing about value hierarchies: when they change, you don’t actually lose anything. It’s not that my friend decided to start giving up the parties for her career, it’s that the parties stopped being fun. That’s because “fun” is the product of our value hierarchies. When we stop valuing something, it ceases to be fun or interesting to us. Therefore, there is no sense of loss, no sense of missing out when we stop doing it. On the contrary, we look back and wonder how we ever spent so much time caring about such a silly, trivial thing, why we wasted so much energy on issues and causes that didn’t matter. These pangs of regret or embarrassment are good; they signify growth. They are the product of our achieving our hopes.





NEWTON’S SECOND LAW OF EMOTION


Our Self-Worth Equals the Sum of Our Emotions Over Time


Let’s return to the punching example, except this time, let’s pretend I exist within this magical force field that prevents any consequences from ever befalling me. You can’t punch me back. You can’t say anything to me. You can’t even say anything to anyone else about me. I am impervious—an all-seeing, all-powerful, evil ass-face.

Newton’s First Law of Emotion states that when someone (or something) causes us pain, a moral gap opens up and our Feeling Brain summons up icky emotions to motivate us to equalize.

But what if that equalization never comes? What if someone (or something) makes us feel awful, yet we are incapable of ever retaliating or reconciling? What if we feel powerless to do anything to equalize or “make things right?” What if my force field is just too powerful for you?

When moral gaps persist for a long enough time, they normalize.16 They become our default expectation. They lodge themselves into our value hierarchy. If someone hits us and we’re never able to hit him back, eventually our Feeling Brain will come to a startling conclusion:

We deserve to be hit.

After all, if we didn’t deserve it, we would have been able to equalize, right? The fact that we could not equalize means that there must be something inherently inferior about us, and/or something inherently superior about the person who hit us.

This, too, is part of our hope response. Because if equalization seems impossible, our Feeling Brain comes up with the next best thing: giving in, accepting defeat, judging itself to be inferior and of low value. When someone harms us, our immediate reaction is usually “He is shit, and I am righteous.” But if we’re not able to equalize and act on that righteousness, our Feeling Brain will believe the only alternative explanation: “I am shit, and he is righteous.”17

This surrender to persisting moral gaps is a fundamental part of our Feeling Brain’s nature. And it is Newton’s Second Law of Emotion: How we come to value everything in life relative to ourselves is the sum of our emotions over time.

This surrender to and acceptance of ourselves as inherently inferior is often referred to as shame or low self-worth. Call it what you want, the result is the same: Life kicks you around a little bit, and you feel powerless to stop it. Therefore, your Feeling Brain concludes that you must deserve it.

Of course, the reverse moral gap must be true as well. If we’re given a bunch of stuff without earning it (participation trophies and grade inflation and gold medals for coming in ninth place), we (falsely) come to believe ourselves inherently superior to what we actually are. We therefore develop a deluded version of high self-worth, or, as it’s more commonly known, being an asshole.

Self-worth is contextual. If you were bullied for your geeky glasses and funny nose as a child, your Feeling Brain will “know” that you’re a dweeb, even if you grow up to be a flaming sexpot of hotness. People who are raised in strict religious environments and are punished harshly for their sexual impulses often grow up with their Feeling Brain “knowing” that sex is wrong, even though their Thinking Brain has long worked out that sex is natural and totally awesome.

High and low self-worth appear different on the surface, but they are two sides of the same counterfeit coin. Because whether you feel as though you’re better than the rest of the world or worse than the rest of the world, the same thing is true: you’re imagining yourself as something special, something separate from the world.

A person who believes he deserves special treatment because of how great he is isn’t so different from someone who believes she deserves special treatment because of how shitty she is. Both are narcissistic. Both think they’re special. Both think the world should make exceptions and cater to their values and feelings over others’.

Narcissists will oscillate between feelings of superiority and inferiority.18 Either everyone loves them or everyone hates them. Everything is amazing, or everything is fucked. An event was either the best moment of their lives or traumatizing. With the narcissist, there’s no in-between, because to recognize the nuanced, indecipherable reality before him would require that he relinquish his privileged view that he is somehow special. Mostly, narcissists are unbearable to be around. They make everything about them and demand that people around them do the same.

You’ll see this high/low-self-worth switcheroo everywhere if you keep an eye out for it: mass murderers, dictators, whiny kids, your obnoxious aunt who ruins Christmas every year. Hitler preached that the world treated Germany so poorly after World War I only because it was afraid of German superiority.19 And in California more recently, one disturbed gunman justified trying to shoot up a sorority house with the fact that while women hooked up with “inferior” men he was forced to remain a virgin.20

You can even find it within yourself, if you’re being honest. The more insecure you are about something, the more you’ll fly back and forth between delusional feeli