I posted earlier on my struggles with weight and weight-loss. Processing that – and going through the often tedious and difficult process of changing my eating and exercise habits – has made me think about certain underlying themes to the way I view the world.
One of those has been of particular value to me, and that is the idea of Permanent War.
I wrote in my book that will power is a finite resource. We get a certain amount each day, and use that amount by pursuing tasks that don’t give immediate pleasurable feedback: working, avoiding unhealthy food, sticking to a schedule. All these actions, great and small, deplete our store of will power by a certain amount. Once that store is used up, we are listless, unable to focus, and likely to give into temptation.
Our stores of willpower can be improved over time, like any muscle growing stronger when deliberately used. But increasingly, it seems that my store of willpower is not enough to do what I need to do – not enough to manage dietary restrictions, and work, and not snap at the dogs when they misbehave, and be emotionally available to my wife, and work on long-term marketing projects, and write music, and on, and on, and on.
Increasingly, doing all these things means I will end the day exhausted, or moody, or both. More often than not, something gives way – often the diet, or the work – and I’m left frustrated and angry at myself: why can’t I deal?
I can compare myself to my heroes, people from history who accomplished great things, and I have no doubt that my will is weaker than theirs. I’m not exactly meant for the world stage, nor would I seek it out. But shouldn’t I be able to navigate my own life competently? Am I that weak?
The truth of the matter, however, is that my time is not my hero’s time. This world is not that world – and this world, the one I live in, is literally designed, from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to bed, to aggressively sap my willpower and manipulate my actions.
The average American sees 250 to 1000 advertisements a day, each of which leverage decades of research by world-class psychologists seeking to define the ways in which our actions can be manipulated. The foods we eat have been molecularly crafted by science to trigger deeply-rooted survival instincts that encourage continuous eating. The possibilities available to us are so vast that huge amounts of cognitive power are required simply to plot a course between variables: do I get my regular coffee, or the new brand? Do I use milk, or half-and-half, or fat-free half-and-half? Do I answer the text message, check my email, check my Facebook, log in to Twitter, or call someone?
The victory condition for these thousands and thousands of brilliant people dedicated to overwhelming our sense of reason and will power, the goal of the most powerful economy on earth, is simply to get us to consume things. When we consume, we trade value in the form of currency, and the aggressors are, in turn, able to trade that value to consume other things. Every bit of space, every flat surface, every radio wave and piece of telecommunications spectrum, every sound and taste and smell for miles and miles around us in every direction is perfectly focused on a single goal: deplete your will power. Overcome your defenses. Make you buy.
We are in a state of perpetual war with our surroundings. They want you to be weak. They want you to lack the will to not eat, not buy, not consume. It was natural, and inevitable, that the capitalist and scientific systems would inter-marry in such a way that the “art of the pitch” would essentially become a form of subliminal, psychological warfare. We are being attacked at all times.
But our drives to accomplish anything beyond the immediate gratification of our basest desires – to hone our physical shape, create art, start a business, stay with a loved one, anything – depend on our being able to resist. On our being able to keep some of our cognitive surplus for ourselves. To have something left over at the end of the day that we didn’t spend just surviving. To have the will to do things that are painful, and hard, and unpleasant – things that will make us great someday. Just not today.
If you know this – if you can feel that fact, feel the weight of all these pokes and prods and outright attacks on the integrity, the wholeness of your consciousness and will – it can motivate you. It motivates me. I straighten my back a bit.
I don’t want to give them the satisfaction.