Only react


Every action after the Big Bang constitutes a reaction rather than an action. Since no one gives birth to themselves then all our actions from the womb to the tomb are reactions to the situations in which we find ourselves: reactions to chemical changes in our mother’s bodies when we are in the womb or changing our wills because our surly nephew slighted us just before we took to our death bed.

The same is true for all activities. If Lionel Messi didn’t react to what his team mates were likely to do next or where the opposition’s defenders are standing he would be a poor footballer. The same goes for chess. Unless a player reacts to what his opponent is doing he will lose.

Of course, in football the referee blows the starting whistle. Isn’t that an action rather than a reaction? I don’t think so. The referee is just reacting to the convention of starting a match at 3pm. And before that he reacted to his unchosen desire to become a referee.

Unchosen? Surely his desire to be a referee was his own decision? Not really. I think that even when you decide to turn on your TV you are reacting to a desire that has risen up in you from God knows where. To claim that you pro-actively gave birth to that desire is like saying that you are making your heart beat.

It’s true that your body is making your heart beat and throws up various desires for you to follow, but this isn’t what we usually mean when we say ‘you’. ‘You’ are the conscious person who makes decisions and who lives inside your head. Almost no one thinks that his body is his self, even if the body is necessary for him to exist. Selves arise from bodies like steam from a steam engine. They are a by-product of the body’s inner workings.

Yet despite every action in reality being a reaction, someone who lives alone might get the false impression that they are actively initiating things. They get up in the morning, they choose what to have for breakfast, they decide when to have a shower. Nothing is moving them. They are the movers, or so it seems. Yet in reality they too are just reacting to internal forces that they are generally unaware of.

Someone who lives with another person doesn’t suffer quite so much from this illusion. It is often quite clear when living with someone that you are reacting. You perhaps get up because your partner is up and about, breakfast is what your partner bought at the shops yesterday and you take a shower once they have finally come out of the bathroom. Conversations start and one thing leads to another and before you know it the day has past. Time flies effortlessly by when you are reacting. It is less strenuous to feel that you are reacting to something that is already on-going. The ball is rolling and to keep it rolling involves no effort.

On the other hand, living under the feeling that you always have to initiate your actions is tiring. It’s like constantly re-booting your computer or constantly scratching around for a new topic of conversation. The ball rolls a short distance then gets stuck. It rolls and gets stuck.


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