“What does everyone want for lunch?” I turn to my kids one by one, making sure to ask Kai last. Kai is four. We all joke that his middle name is “I want what you’re having.”
If Jordan is having pasta, Jessica a grilled cheese, and Kyra oatmeal, Kai will want some of each. All together. Sometimes mixed. If there are five cereal boxes in the cabinet, he will want some of each, in the same bowl. If there are four cartons of ice cream in the freezer (our record is eight), he will want some of each. And if you refuse, you will regret it. It takes longer to quiet his response than to honor his obviously reasonable request.
Options on the table, I focus on Kai: “OK Kai, what will it be?”
There is much discussion these days about social influences on human behavior. Spurred by the publication of the book Connected, we are being asked to consider whether happiness is contagious and whether our friends make us fat (as in this NYTimes Magazine article). Books on the food industry by David Kessler, Michael Pollan, and others are teaching us how food is manufactured (with high levels of salt, sugar, and saturated fats), marketed (as the ultimate pleasure), and sold (in packages with promises placed at eye level) in ways that cause us to buy and eat more than we should of foods we think we want that are not good for us.
The message reverberates: you are being deceived, manipulated, or otherwise adversely influenced by others.
We greet the words with a measure of relief. It is not just me. For too long we have been led to believe that whatever is wrong is our individual fault. If I am fat, I should eat less. If my relationships don’t last, I should commit more. If I am depressed, I should pull myself up and decide to be happy. Yet, as the record reveals, in all of these cases will power doesn’t seem to work.
Now, however, given the new evidence, we can blame someone else. Perhaps more to the point, we can now turn to someone else to help us achieve the results we want. So we rely on the city council to ban soda machines from schools, or a pharmaceutical company to pop us a mood-altering pill. Someone else will take care of me.
Is it true?
No, but the answer is not to swing back to blame the individual either. For these strategies for curing a problem—whether targeting will power or external influences—are flip sides of the same coin. Both perpetuate the same way of thinking about our human selves that lies at the roots of the problems themselves.
How so? Both approaches assume that our minds—our thinking, judging, executive selves—are the strongest resource we have for getting what we want. Both assume that our minds are in charge, or at least should be. Both assume that our minds work by exercising a power over our bodies, mastering or controlling our desires for food, for sex, or for happiness. If our individual mind is not up to the task, then we can rely on a collective mind to limit our choices.
Whether we place our faith in the individual mind or the collective mind, the logic is the same: mind over body. Yet this logic itself is part of the problem. We have learned to think and feel and act as if we were minds living over and against bodies. In the process, we have learned to ignore what our bodies know. We have cut ourselves off from the sources of wisdom in our desires–wisdom capable of guiding us to make decisions that will enable our health and well being.
Kai looks at me. He pauses, feeling my question hanging in the air. He looks around at his siblings and back at me. “I want a grilled cheese with tomato.”
“Please,” I reply.
“Please,” he repeats. I smile. No one else asked for a grilled cheese with tomato. Kai is finally making his own request. He is learning to discern for himself what he wants: he remembers having it on a day when Geoff had one too. Now the desire is his.
I start making the sandwich and decide to make half. Even though he was quite clear in his request, it is likely that he will begin to eat the sandwich and then see something around him that he wants even more. I will have to remind him that this is what he wanted; and he will reply, “But Mommy, it isn’t what I want!”
Kai is teaching me about our desires—about how malleable, teachable, and ultimately creative they are. For the fact that we can be and are influenced by what surrounds us—however frustrating it might be for a meal maker—is precisely what enables us as individuals to discover and become our singular selves.
We are connected, and we are singular. We are singular because we are connected. For what defines our singularity is the unique mesh of bodily relationships we are and create with the people, places, and things that are supporting us in becoming who we are.
How then are we to find our way?
It is not by blaming ourselves, nor blaming the social influences upon us for our actions. It is not by revving up our mental will to master our bodies, nor seeking external solutions.
Rather, we need, as best we can, to open up the sensory awareness that the unique matrix of relationships that we are has enabled us to develop. We need to feel what we are feeling so that we can learn over time to make decisions that align with the trajectories of our health and well being.
We need options. We need information, and we need to be willing to participate consciously in the process of finding the wisdom in our desires. It is the process of doing so that yields the greatest possible pleasure.