Do unto thyself what thou wouldn’t let others do

July 6, 2006 | By | 1 Reply More

Would we harm our selves in ways that we would never let others harm us?  Yes, actually.  We do this all the time.  This common occurrence has long intrigued me.

About fifteen years ago, I was trying to lose weight.  A diet book I was reading presented a hypothetical, which I have embellished:

Imagine that a gang of strangers repeatedly broke into your house.  Each time they broke in, they brought a large basket of food with them.  Each time they broke in, they tracked you down and forced you to eat food that you didn’t need or want.  “Stop that!”  You would yell.  “I’m not hungry.  Go away!”  Nonetheless, the strangers forced you to eat food that you didn’t want.  They returned every few hours and repeated his attack on you.  Every time you tried to exercise, the strangers appeared and made you sit on the couch to watch television instead. 

Over the course of months, the excess food the strangers forced you to eat caused your body to bloat larger and larger.  Your clothing stopped fitting.  It became difficult to get in and out of your car.  Most of your acquaintances gossiped about how you had become “fat.”  

And it got even worse.  You became diabetic. You got depressed.  You constantly cursed those strangers for making you obese and unhealthy.  You bought special burglar-proof doors and windows (but they didn’t work).  Because this gang repeatedly violated your rights, you even considered buying a gun to defend yourself from the horrible things they did.

The punch line, of course, is that each overweight person serves as his or her own “gang of strangers.”  Overweight people repeatedly place unneeded food into their own mouths.  Day after day, they bloat their own bodies and they increase their own risks of disease and death.  Every day, it is the obese person who prevents himself or herself from exercising.  But somehow, because the victims themselves are also the perpetrators, they tolerate their own wretched misdeeds.

This post is not really about obsesity, though.  There is a deep principle at work. How is it that so many of us are so willing to inflict the same damage upon ourselves that we would never tolerate if done by others?

Many people believe that human beings are rationally and inevitably driven by self-interest.  That model often appears to work, but it seems that there is also an equal, opposite and destructive force at work.  This alternate dark force seems to blind us to future consequences.  Human animals appear to be vulnerable to attending fully to their present cravings while neglecting their future lives.  Ahhh, that sugary fatty heavenly present!  

In many other ways (not just overeating), exercising personal autonomy seems to overwhelm or intoxicate us so much that we shove our future selves entirely off the stage.  This is unfortunate, since we are also organisms that will (at least most of us) continue living well into the future. 

By the time we get to be adults, our future selves have good reason to be wary of our dopey present selves.  We disappoint our future selves time after time.   How many times has today’s self deprived tomorrow’s self of a good night’s sleep?  And . . .  gee . . . who gave me that hangover?  Who is responsible for my flabby muscles?  You get the idea.

Our present selves spend money that our future selves will have to pay back.  Our present selves take driving risks that often put our future selves into the hospital ICU.  Our present selves fail to equip our future selves with basic education and work habits.  Why am I in this dead end job?  Oh, yeah . . . that guy.  Our present selves cause our future selves to be addicted to drugs, alcohol, bulimia, gambling, coffee, racist attitudes, consumerism.  You name it.  

Here’s another variation on the same theme.   All too many people allow their present selves to impose ignorance on their future selves.  To illustrate, what if a demon showed up one day and announced that he was going to rewire your brain so that you would no longer be able to skeptically question highly questionable claims such as virgin birth.  “Get out of here,” you would yell.  “Leave my brain alone!”  Most of us would consider that depriving our future minds of the ability to think critically would be akin to murder (I do).  In this regard, though, many of us serve as our own demons.  Many of us allow our present selves to irrevocably relinquish our future self’s ability to be skeptical and self-critical by handing the keys to our future self’s mind to suspiciously over-eager political and religious leaders.

It is so often unfair for our future selves that time flows only into the future!  Aided by this one-way flow, our past self often denies our present self an honorable history.  It’s not easy to cast blame where it seems to belong, though.  When someone asks about our accomplishments, it’s not socially acceptable to answer: “I’ve achieved absolutely nothing yet. I didn’t even exist until this very moment.  A past self that inhabited my body screwed around for decades stealing cars, but that wasn’t me.”  

Too bad, in a way.  It might actually be useful to temporally bifurcate my self as an excuse, at least occasionally.  It would be convenient to explain that it was actually a past version of my body (not me) that utterly failed to engage in all of those activities that my present self earnestly declares to be important.  Therefore, it wasn’t really me that failed to spend more time with my children. It wasn’t the current version of me who failed to drive to Louisiana to help Katrina victims.  It was that past version of me. I (my present self) am so utterly different!  The present me is the new fresh innocent version.  Stop judging me on the conduct of that previous user of my body!

This excuse just doesn’t fly, however, and we all know it.  Our past self doesn’t break cleanly from the present self.  The current version of me is inextricably rooted in the past versions of me.  The various versions of me are thus always in it together.  And we all know that, to a large degree, each of present selves overlap with our past selves.  Because we know this, you would think that our present selves would take much better care of our future selves.  But we so often don’t.

But back to my original observation:  It just amazes me that, though we would never let a stranger hurt our future selves, we do that damage ourselves.  I don’t claim to understand this phenomenon.  Rather, I’ll just give this dangerous and surreal phenomenon a name:  the intoxication of autonomy.

At the national level we see the same phenomenon.  We would never willingly allow an enemy to damage our future selves the way we willingly do damage upon our future selves. Imagine this, for example: what would we think if Osama bin Laden threatened to hypnotize us so as to make us want to buy huge cars that dangerously increased our country’s dependence on scarce petroleum? 

None of us would tolerate this if Osama did this, but most of us have no problem when we impose this reckless energy policy on our own future selves. What if Osama threatened to hypnotize our leaders so that they refused to promote the many benefits of conservation? 

What if Osama threatened to hypnotize us into weakening our national laws pertaining to toxic waste, thereby degrading the quality of our air and water? What if he threatened to hypnotize us so that we would scoff at highly trained climate scientists who are unanimously warning that continuing to burning more fossil fuels will destroy life as we know it? 

We wouldn’t tolerate that if someone else did it to us, but we do it to ourselves.

What if Osama hypnotized our leaders into talking only in sound bites, thereby destroying all collaborative and meaningful attempts to solve national issues?  What if Osama hypnotized us into celebrating legalized corporate bribes that he laughingly called “campaign contributions”?  What if he convinced citizens to rely almost entirely upon local television “news” and local newspapers that spew vacuous corporate-filtered “Be Happy” pabulum?

We wouldn’t tolerate that if someone else did it to us, but we do it to ourselves.

What if Osama hypnotized us to believe that decent health care should be reserved only for the wealthy? What if Osama hypnotized us into running up massive trade deficits and national debt?  What if he hypnotized us into pouring a half-trillion dollars into a military endeavor so unplanned and chaotic that after three years it appeared that that military action actually worsened national security? 

What if Osama hypnotized us to finance that expensive war by borrowing huge amounts of money from China, while simultaneously cutting domestic taxes for only the richest of citizens?

If any person tried to force these things on us, we would be incredibly angry.  If someone else tried to do these things to us, we would instantly recognize that these actions were attempts to destroy our country, to ruin our morale and to send our nation careening over a steep economic cliff.

Lots of us are willing to sell out our future selves in return for a smattering of present flag-waving pleasure.  I don’t know whether we make these terrible deals because we lack imagination or because fear has limited our ability to think.  I wonder whether we have lost the ability to think these issues through because too many decades of television have already destroyed our ability to think critically.

All I know is that there appears to be an equal and opposite force to rational self-interest and that, as a nation, we have become fat, happy and highly vulnerable.


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Category: American Culture, Current Events, Economy, Energy, Environment, Iraq, Meaning of Life, Medicine, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (1)

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  1. Heather says:

    This is very interesting on so many levels. With me this problem has nothing to do with an inability to think. I constantly ponder what I need and want to do, then I beat myself up about not doing it. My problem has to do with a need for instant gratification. This, as you mentioned, has to do with the fact that I grew up on top of a television.

    I have noticed a major trend in the fact that when people get older (I use this term generally) they become extremely self-complacent. Any time I bring up some, so called, controversial issue such as politics, religion, philosophy with anyone I know over the age of say 40 I get the complete brush off. At times even get told that I am going to hell!!! I was talking to my dad last night actually. I inquired to him "where did I get my personality from?" He told me that my mother used to be full of spirit! Now my mother is the one who tells me I am going to hell on a regular basis, and is very sedentary and complacent. What happens to these people? Of course, it is noteworthy to mention that I live in the bible belt, and it is very rare to find a non-christian.

    Another point of interest is the fact that it would be useful to separate our current selves from our past selves. You say it doesn't fly, but why not? The world around us is ever changing and so are we. I think that excuse does fly. You will have people who question it, but so what. My perception of me is much more important than others.

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