2013-06-04

If

One of the primary problems with political movements is that they are idealistic to the point of naivete. Sure, if people were more inclined toward my [read: anyone's] political beliefs, society would improve dramatically. There's just one, small problem with that viewpoint: it's contingent on a large "if" that will never be satisfied.

We talk about this in politics, and it seems obvious. Any time we find ourselves promoting a set of policies that rely on the vast majority of the population completely changing their ideological core, we are engaged in a fool's errand. Forget the diatribes, impassioned articles and speeches, poignant Facebook info graphics, and all the rest of it. Facts don't matter when ideology is at stake. One thing you can bank on about human nature is that people will entertain any illusion so long as it lets them off the hook. This is why all the internet political arguing out there doesn't actually succeed in changing anyone's mind.

But that's politics, a relatively small slice of the daily lives of most. The rest of our lives consist of spending time at home, at work, commuting, going out on weekends, shopping, pursuing hobbies, and so on. We display a faulty tendency when discussing politics, so isn't it highly probable that we suffer the same illusions during the rest of the day?

One fairly common application of this same principle to apolitical life is the case of a difficult coworker. We all have coworkers who we find irritating, for all kinds of reasons. Either the person's workplace behavior is inappropriate in our own opinions, or the person appears to be a sycophant, or perhaps the person has been given undeserved recognition. Perhaps a million things, but whatever the case may be, we find that person irritating and wish he or she would just be different. In fact, if that person adjusted his or her behavior, then your workplace would be perfect!

There is again, if. Your total satisfaction hinges on an if that will never be realized. My mother would say, "tough cookies!" You cannot have a perfect life. Your best chance is to modify whatever it is you can control about your life to make it as pleasant as possible. You may have already noticed that the passive-aggressive sticky notes and huffing and puffing during meetings (or whatever) has not made a major impact on how you feel about the irritating person in question, nor has it successfully changed that person's behavior.

To close the loop, you may have also noticed that no matter how annoying our political situation is, your dissatisfaction hasn't managed to make an impact on it.

Let's consider another apolitical example: Traffic. Boy, does that one get my goat. There are so many selfish people on the road, driving dangerously and adversely impacting my arrival time! If they only drove more like me, everyone's commute would be faster, safer, more efficient, and more relaxing. Yep, if. I happened to notice during my morning drive today (and on many other occasions, to boot) that I am only in control of one car on the road. The other cars are controlled by other people. I also happened to notice that no matter how badly the other motorists drive, no amount of complaining on my part has resulted in a noticeable improvement in the quality of their driving.

...and, again, I notice that my complaints have had similar impact on bad coworkers and political conditions.

One final example: All of us have had to deal with difficult personal relationships. Whether your particular case was a close friend with whom you had a falling out, or whether it was a failed romantic relationship, or perhaps a bad feud with an important family member, that particular detail is irrelevant. What holds true in all such cases is that, no matter how much you pushed, prodded, advocated, argued, nagged, reminded, begged, or otherwise took it upon yourself to change another person... it didn't work.

It's not that you were wrong. After all, if that person had been able to see your point of view, everything would have been better! The whole problem would have been solved. If.

The question you ought to ask yourself at this point is how long and how desperately you clung to if before finally figuring out that the only things we can meaningfully change or impact are the ones directly under our control.

You cannot change a person's ideology. You cannot change a person's politics. You can't change how they drive, how they behave at work, and to what degree they are willing to satisfy your own personal feelings and needs. Even if you're right about the conditions of a parallel universe in which you always get your own way, you still exist in this, our one and only universe. The conditions of that universe are exactly what they are. Within your circle of influence lie your immediate surroundings, your body, your words, your mind... All of these things you can control.

Beyond those things, however, you have no control. To be happy, to change your life for the better, you might want to consider developing greater skill in changing the things you actually can change, while simultaneously devoting less time to changing the things that are by their very nature outside of your control.

It's part of growing up.