Being added to the Library…
Why We Do The Things We Do
Do you engage in morning rituals? My morning rituals include reading Bible quotes, praying, lighting candles for all sorts of reasons and a lot of different people and entities—it’s my version of casting my cares and concerns onto the altar—and reading my annual Focus on This note. Then I’m mentally ready to start my day.
Maybe having a morning ritual list like mine would be a good thing for you—or it might drive you nuts. Maybe you like or don’t like structure or order, and you might think that starting out your day in the same way every day is ritual without substance while I think that it is the spine of substance and I need it to tackle my day from a good, centered, and balanced place. Simply put, it clears my mind.
But people are different. We want and need different things. And no one knows better (or should know better) what we most want and/or need than we do. So whether or not you engage in morning rituals isn’t what’s important. What’s important is that you know and understand why you do or do not engage in them—or in anything else.
Aristotle said, “All human actions have one or more of these seven causes: chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reason, passion, and desire.”
Human actions. Our actions. When I read this quote the first time, I thought, “This is significant.” Each time I’ve read it, I’ve had that same gut reaction, though I wasn’t quite sure why. What clues in this quote make it significant?
The value of understanding human actions is imperative to successful, constructive relationships, to grasping what motivates others and us to do the things we do. It isn’t just the action but why that specific action. Circumstance plays a factor; situation or event, too. And the experiences we’ve had until that moment in time also condition our responses. If we had a similar or related experience earlier and we reacted in a specific way and the outcome was good, we’re likely to repeat that response. If the outcome was horrific or didn’t achieve our hopes for it, we’re not likely to repeat that same response. We’re apt to modify it to one with greater odds of success for a better outcome. Our desired outcome.
This part is not a tough mental pretzel. Touch a hot stove, you get burned. Not a good outcome. So going forward, you modify your behavior by letting the hot stove cool before touching it. No burn. Better outcome. Our desired outcome. Going forward, we choose not to be burned and let the stove cool before touching it.
As human beings and writers, we might not want to know the why of things but when the matter concerns us and our behavior (or that of our characters, fictional human beings), we need to understand it. The insight is key to knowing who we are, and why we are as we are. We need a firm grasp on ourselves—what makes us tick, so to speak—to get a firm grasp on how to tick more efficiently. In this case, that efficiency is the difference in living a content and balanced, fulfilling life, and one that isn’t. I don’t know anyone real or fictional who doesn’t want to be content, balanced or fulfilled. It’s our nature.
Looking at each of Aristotle’s defined causes, what do we see?
Chance. We all act on chance. Oh, there’s playing the lottery, but I’m thinking more about the “Being in the right place at the right time” or “Being in the wrong place at the wrong time” kind of chances. We get a promotion at work. Agree to a blind date that results in a lifelong marriage. Take a different route home and avoid a tragedy. Are delayed when dropping a child off at school—and as a result, we’re not at our desks in a building struck by a plane on 9/11. We take risks, gamble on a new start-up company, invest in someone else’s dream because we have faith in them. Chance impacts us all at some point. Over and again, we discover as we explore our personal history, at different points in our lives. Chance encounters, meetings. Doors or windows of opportunities open.
I’m convinced. Chance is a cause for some of our actions. But it’s our reaction to chance that is core. Opportunities knock, but we must answer. Narrow misses might be wake-up calls, or intended wake-up calls we choose to heed or ignore.
Nature. By nature, man is social, political, and somewhat predictable. Our personalities, beliefs, and how we relate to our environment impact our nature. What we’re taught is good, bad or indifferent and other outside influences impact us and we tend to temper our actions to gain the results we wish to achieve. Yet nature isn’t the final authority on actions; men and woman and children can and do go rogue. Ever heard the expression, Got a wild hair? The devil made me do it? Ever do something and then ask yourself, What was I thinking? I can’t believe I did that!
Sometimes our own actions surprise and startle, even shock, us. We rise to the occasion or are suckered into it, knowing better, but doing it anyway. So, yes, our basic nature is a factor in our actions. It can liberate or restrict us in our actions.
But our nature is only a foundation. It is what we choose to build on it that is core. We might be shy—perhaps even a doormat, but mess with our kids and we get feral and ferocious.
Compulsion. Inside all of us are little compulsive behaviors. Most are idiosyncrasies that can be endearing. But compulsion unchecked can create huge problems for us. Think compulsive gambling, drinking, theft. The list can be long and diverse. Temperance of our reactions to our compulsions leads to moderation, and that to balance. In some cases, professional assistance is required. Still, one must seek aid and must choose to accept the aid offered.
In ordinary terms, we might feel compelled to do or not do a specific something. Peer pressure, expectations, personal demands all influence us. But it is still our decision to act or not act. We can be forced to do things we’d rather not. Doing the wrong thing for the right reason, for example. Yet during the process from the demand to the action itself, we choose to take that action. In the bluntest of terms, we’re faced with a Do it or die compulsion. We don’t want to die, so we do it. Are we absolved? No, because ultimately we decided and therefore we are responsible. But there are extenuating circumstances and those too factor in. Still compulsion, while carrying consequences, isn’t a Get out of jail free card.
We can be compelled. By us, by others, by situations or events. But during the process, we choose to acquiesce or to exercise restraint for our own purposes.
Habit. We all have habits. Some are good, some are not. Some impact only us, but some of our habits also impact others. Let’s say you are a morning person. You’re up at the crack of dawn, busy and engaged. Let’s also say your partner is a night owl who sleeps until noon. Is this an issue? Maybe, but maybe not. If you like quiet time until noon, alone time, you’re fine. If your partner likes that quiet, alone time in late evening, you’re fine.
My point is that our habits aren’t all life-threating or life-altering. Some are mundane. But even the mundane can pose challenges. Take for example the classic fish out of water. That’s a breeding ground for conflict. It doesn’t have to be a flashpoint, but likely will be, due to habit. Good or bad, habits become ingrained and when deviations come about, we often don’t react well. We become impatient, easily annoyed, and even anxious. We don’t like our comfort zone breached, and we don’t want our applecart upset. Yet life does breach and upset—and we all know bad habits are hardest to break. So habit does give us routine and method and standard modes of acting.
But habits can be broken. We can deviate from them. Habits might entice but alone they don’t rule our actions. Remember in Everybody Loves Raymond, Robert’s habit of touching his chin before putting food into his mouth? Some would call that a compulsion, but it was a habit. A remnant of childhood before Raymond when Robert got parental attention. The core of the habit was to recreate the good feelings Robert associated with parental attention.
We might “fall into” a habit, but for it to become ingrained into our personal fabric, there is a core reason behind the habit. Because we’ve always done it that way, for example. The habit action is familiar. The core reason we ingrain it is comfort. We’re comfortable with the familiar. We know what to expect.
So habit can incite and impact our actions. But the reason we created the habit is core. Awareness of the core permits us to shed or ingrain the habitual action and choose to act or not act on it.
Reason. We can reason ourselves into a position on just about anything. An action is expected, warranted, even required. It’s the right thing to do, the necessary thing to do. To our minds and our way of thinking, the action we take seems reasonable and rational. Don’t jump off the bridge because your best friend does. Don’t lie, cheat or steal. If you do, you’ll pay steep consequences. We reason through actions before we commit to them.
But what motivates us to commit to those actions, or not to commit to those actions can be due to irrational thinking, faulty logic, or rationalization because we want to justify doing what we want to do not what reason tells us to do.
So reason, too, comes down to us making a choice to act or not act based on whatever criteria we set—and that speaks to the warning to choose our criteria carefully, exercising self-discipline. We shouldn’t drift, but act deliberately—or choose deliberately to drift.
Passion. Find your passion and work in it. We’ve all heard that advice at least once or twice. There’s a reason it’s cited often. When you are passionate about something, you explore it deeply. You devote yourself, your resources in time, effort, and energy to it. You leave no stone unturned because you love it. Your passion drives you to act, and to keep on acting.
Whether passion is instilled or created by circumstance, it is a formidable force. It drives you beyond motivation and into the realm of sacrifice. A willingness to forfeit for the sake of your passion. For instilled passion, think of the protégé pianist. Gifted and fueled by a passion for playing, s/he sacrifices play time, sports, other pleasant activities to practice the passion. Think of the boy who watches a loved one die. Feeling helpless, a passion ignites in him to heal. He goes on to become a doctor, his passion to never feel helpless again, to do everything humanly possible to help others heal, fuels his passion for medicine.
While passion can take you places you couldn’t go without it, it is still a two-part process. The protégé must practice the piano. The doctor must study medicine. Both might love the practice and study, but if they did not choose to do the work required, they might retain the passion for piano and medicine but their efforts would lack the rewards of practice and study.
So passion does drive human actions. But choosing to make the sacrifices—pleasant or not—to perfect the passion; to learn and grow and become expert . . . requires a choice.
Desire. Often desire is borne of experience. Some event occurs—maybe often, maybe once—and it ignites a desire in us to act. The event can be something big or something that seems insignificant to everyone else but is seriously significant to you. It’s interesting to note that it’s the scars others can’t see that create the deepest, most persistent and unrelenting desires inside. Some can be innocuous, some toxic.
I’m recalling here the young woman who was constantly called a dumb blond.” She had gorgeous blond hair and a sharp mind, but when she looked at herself through others’ eyes, she saw a dumb blond. If she was abused, mistreated, betrayed, lied to or disrespected—well, what did she expect? She was, she thought, a dumb blond. She accepted her lot in life—until she didn’t. When she became a victim of domestic violence, the event ignited a desire to change. She left . . . and dyed her hair red. Why? Because nobody messes with redheads. They have tempers and attitude, and if you mess with a redhead, you’d better be ready to fight because you’re going to have a whale of one on your hands.
What changed? Her desire for change. A lifetime of resentment at being a dumb blond. Her perception of a redhead was the outward sign of the internal scar. Her red hair was totally insignificant to others—many have red hair—but it was far from insignificant to her. Red hair represented strength, respect, safety. Red hair represented, Victim no more!
But desire alone didn’t cause the action. It ignited the desire. She, and her perceptions of what things meant, fed her decision. Ultimately, she chose to act. She made a choice.
And so I think Aristotle was right about human actions and their causes. All of those things cited . . . I see how they connect. But in exploring, one item not on his list repeatedly surfaced, at least in my mind: choice.
Cause might incite, encourage, inspire, and/or invite action, and in countless situations, the causes he cited do overlap.
But without an individual choice to act, there is no action. There is perhaps chance. It is perhaps our nature to act; might be a compulsion or a habit, and we might have reason, experience passion and/or desire, but we haven’t actually done anything. We haven’t actually acted. One might say, we’re all dressed up with nowhere to go. Or one might say, we have all these causes to act, but sometimes we do, and sometimes we don’t.
While causes for human actions relate, the choice to act or not act on them consistently remains with the individual.
And that makes me wonder if Choice should have been on Aristotle’s list.
© 2014, Vicki Hinze. Hinze is the award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of nearly thirty novels in a variety of genres including, suspense, mystery, thriller, and romantic or faith-affirming thrillers. Her latest release is Down and Dead in Dixie. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in Philosophy, Theocentric Business and Ethics. Hinze’s online community: Facebook. Books. Twitter. Contact. www.vickihinze.com.