I read recently that when religious people give themselves up to God and say, ‘Do with me Lord as you see fit’ they feel a sudden sense of relief, as though a burden had been lifted from their shoulders. Oddly, by handing their lives over to God these people feel they gain more control over their lives.
At first blush giving yourself up so as to gain more self-control sounds like one of those deep and meaningless paradoxes that the mystically inclined enjoy. Despite this it feels right to me. And I too have fantasised about abdicating all responsibility, though rather than giving myself up to God I envision checking myself into a sanatorium, letting myself be wheeled around corridors by attentive nurses and spending my days at a lakeside with a tartan blanket over my knees, just staring out over the misty waters until it’s time to go back in for tea and buns and then bed. Everything is done for me and all responsibility for my life is out of my hands.
There is something very appealing about giving up. Maybe it’s like those Zen Buddhist koan, where after struggling to make sense of some daft riddle like ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’, the mind, sick of the whole damn thing, just relaxes and gives up. It is then that the practitioner allegedly understands that to see some greater truth you first have to give up trying.
Since I’m neither insane, disabled, nor a Zen Buddhist I will have to find some other way of giving myself up, but how? I suppose I could try ancestor worship. After all, ancestors, unlike God, unquestionably did exist and created me in a very real sense. I could spend my time imagining they are still watching over me and I could pray to them:
‘My ancient ancestors, who art in the soil beneath my feet and in the air around me, hallowed be thy names…’
Yet that wouldn’t work since I couldn’t even stop arguing with my dad when he was alive so I’m certainly not going to devote myself to dead relatives I’ve never met.
So rather than give myself up perhaps I should instead just try to take things a little less seriously than I do. I have the slight tendency to megalomania and imagine the world will collapse if I take my eye off the ball for a moment. I am like Scobey in Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, who feels responsible for the lives of those around him. On his death it turns out that the people he was worrying about were quite capable of looking after themselves.
Though I don’t feel responsible for other people I do feel responsible for single-handedly stopping ISIS, Islamism and Islam from destroying the West, as well as preventing Barack Obama from turning America into Mexico. I also feel it is my duty to get Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage into power and fighting all kinds of vanity-inspired liberal foolishness.
Yet somewhere deep inside I know this to be self-aggrandising nonsense and that what I do makes practically no difference to the state of the world. I can’t even stop my own body from assailing me with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune so how I think I am going to stop Jihadi John is a mystery (actually he was probably killed this week, which is good news).
I’m not talking about the kind of fatalism where you stay in bed all day thinking that nothing you do will affect a future already set in stone. That’s just daft. I just think you shouldn’t try to do better than your best. No need to go that extra mile. You see, I sometimes find myself trying too hard, trying to optimise my time and energy, thinking not only once but twice, three times and four times, at which point my mind starts ‘churning in neutral’ and whirs like an over-taxed hard disk when all programs become unresponsive.
Here we are in Malcom Gladwell territory. He basically recommends we rely on our instinct rather than rational thought, since instinct will generally choose quickly and wisely. As a way of simplifying your life I think Gladwell’s advice is good, though I have greater faith in the more nuanced views of Daniel Kahnemann and Keith Stanovich. They tell us that there are times when it’s wrong to rely on our instinct and we should instead carefully think things through. The classic example is the bat and ball that cost $1.10 . The bat costs $1 more than the ball so how much does the ball cost? Most people’s gut instinct is to say ’10 cents’ but this would be wrong. The bat costs $1.05 and the ball just 5 cents. This is a problem that, pace Malcolm Gladwell, needs thinking through.
But here you hit a paradox. How do you know which situations need thinking through? Should you analyse them to decide? If so then every situation needs thinking through first and you will never rely on instinct and this would be exhausting. So should you let your instinct tell you when a situation needs thinking through? Probably. I find it hard to say.
Maybe the Law of Diminishing Returns supports this course of action. Since life is complex and ultimately unpredictable there soon comes a point when thinking too much constitutes a poor use of your time. So much thinking, planning, double-checking, wishing and hoping in an unpredictable world becomes a tedious and pointless alternative to actually living.
So my councel is not to try to outsmart the universe or second guess the future but just to let yourself do what you do, think what you think and let the chips fall where they may. By subordinating yourself to your instinct and whistling Que sera sera things could become pleasantly simple. And like the religious people who give themselves up to God, by giving yourself up to your instinct you may paradoxically find that you now have greater self-control.