I've been thinking about how much or little control I have over my life, my actions, my being.
I've been thinking about what, if anything, is pre-destined, and about randomness and order in human nature.
Much of this thinking has been brought on by my reading of late. In the last month (in addition to some cheesy fiction) I have read:
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Shiff
Sperm Wars: Infidelity, Sexual Conflict, and Other Bedroom Battles by Robin Baker
The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
I'm not sure I will be able to bring all those books together to form one smashing conclusion that resonates coherently. That is a tall order. But surprisingly, these books do share a denominator and I want to get at that. They all deal with behavior and interpretation of that behavior, with our control over destiny, and also our complete lack of control over it, with nature's firm hold on the way of things, and with nature's failure to provide consistency in the way of things at all. Unfortunately, to really explore each of these books in the way they deserve would require me to write a dissertation, and spend months doing so. That's not gonna happen... so you will have to deal with my measly stab at this, knowing that there is actually way more to say, and to debate.
I loved Shiff's Cleopatra, although I'm not sure I really learned more than I already knew after reading it. The truth is, very few historical documents exist now that we can trust to tell us her real story. History is like that in general. It is HIS STORY, of course. The men who detailed Cleopatra's life during her life and in the centuries just after her life had certain views of women-namely that they were less than men in every way. Additionally these historians were prone to hyperbole. That was the way of history back in the day..(and now, too, sometimes). It was meant to entertain as much as anything, and sometimes the truth was stretched or eliminated as a result. (For a moment let's not get into the idea that truth may not even exist, as the past evaporates into nothingness and we are only left with imperfect and inconsistent memories of it and nothing else.) Anyway, there is almost no reliable information on the life of Cleopatra. That is the one real truth.
Cleopatra got her extensive power through her sexual prowess, these male historians (you know, like Plutarch) say. It wasn't that she was simply a savvy, power-hungry, politically astute leader born into complete privilege and position--it was that she was a wily little slut, willing to sleep around to get the power she craved. Meanwhile these same male historians cast Julius Caesar to be just what Cleopatra likely really was--a savvy, power-hungry, politically astute leader, even if he was victim to Cleopatra's seductive advances.Sure, he was a lady killer; sure he slept around like nobody's business, but that just makes him a handsome guy, appealing to the ladies, not a womanizer who used his seductive powers to gain control of say-- EGYPT.
Anyway, the book got me thinking about how little we really know about people; how often we are just left with the interpretations of others--or our own interpretations--and how there may be little truth in any of it. I have no real control over how I am cast by others; not really. And my own interpretations of me and my life is skewed by the fact that I am living it. Many of you feel you know me. And you do. You know exactly what I have selected to tell you, and you know exactly how you have interpreted that information, and you have come up with an amalgam of a human being in your mind who may or may not bear any resemblance to the person I am--if there is any one person I am in the first place. I am one person to you, another person to someone else and another to someone else. I am not consistent. I am entirely consistent. It all makes me feel like an empty vat--in which people dump their interpretations of me--and where is the real me? Is there even a real me? Was there a real Cleopatra?
Are you still there? Or did you start skimming paragraphs ago?
Onto Sperm Wars.
Apparently I want to have sex with people based only on evolutionary drive. So do you. Wanting to have sex with someone has little do to with whether we have things in common or "connect" at a deep level with them. That whole connect thing--it is just a guise. My desires (and yours) only have to do with whether my body perceives you to have the sperm that could impregnate me most effectively. It has to do with timing, it has to do with hormonal drive. Whether I am (or you are) monogamous or a total cheater has little to do with you your upbringing/moral stance/set of ethics and everything to do with your desire to carry your specific line of genes into the future.
In The Red Queen I learned that from an evolutionary perspective we humans are uniquely designed to seek monogamy and then subsequently cheat in order to ensure our genes outlive us. You do have a choice as to whether you are monogamous or not. But your drives belong to evolutionary biology--to your unconscious need to bear progeny and carry on your life into future generations.
Did you know that 10% of all children are conceived by a person OTHER than their purported father? And that's the stat from married couples. It goes up to 15% when talking about unmarried couples.
Or so the book says. And I buy it. Some of it. I think.
The problem is, of course, that admitting I buy it leaves me more a product of human nature and less a product of my own design. In other words, who am I outside of my unconscious desires? How can I believe in my motivations if I can't even trust my mind to fall in love based on ... well love... and not a biological instinct? Further, in reading Cleopatra I drew the conclusion that I am only an amalgam of your interpretations of me, a vessel for others ideas of who I am. So what does that leave me with?
Where is Mary? Does she even exist?
In Outliers I learned that if I can just do something for 10,000 hours I may someday be Bill Gates. Except I won't be. Because only the uniquely privileged are able to accrue 10000 hours in any one area. Additionally, I need to have been brought up in an upper middle class family to have also learned the social acumen necessary to catapult my 10,000 hour expertise into success. (At least I have that going for me!)
So, according to Gladwell success isn't a product of meritocracy. And we already knew that, anyway. But still... on top of being a vessel for others' interpretations, on top of being a slave to my biologically driven desires, I am also successful, or not, based on a certain set of features that have nothing to do with ME the "person" and everything to do with circumstance.
Okay. Right. So what is my (not so smashing) conclusion?
That I have no control over my thoughts, instincts and behavior.
Even though I have been brought up to believe that I have total control over my thoughts, instincts and behavior.
Of course I don't buy this completely. How could I? To do so would be to erase me -- the me I think I am-- from existence. But there is something illuminating, also, about accepting that I am not in control... that my lot in life is both mine and not mine, that my instincts are both my responsibility and also outside of me and belonging to a greater whole.