What do you do when your own worst enemy is yourself?
I recently heard a story about a woman named Zelda Gamson. She was an older woman who had lived a very fulfilling life, having been a civil rights activist, among other things. Unfortunately, Zelda often battled with a lifelong smoking addiction that she couldn't seem to kick. On one particular day, she felt a really strong desire to quit... so strong, that she made a deal with a friend of hers. It was an oath, with this friend as a witness, that if she ever smoked another cigarette, then she would donate $5,000 to the Ku Klux Klan. Period.
You can imagine how repugnant this donation would be, especially to a former civil rights activist. In fact, the idea of it was so bitter, that she knew that no cigarette, no matter how nice it would be, was worth such a horrible option. She just couldn't bring herself to smoke.
Of course, that was the point all along.
Zelda had effectively taken part in what is called the Ulysses contract -- a freely made decision that is designed to bind oneself in the future. And it worked.
The name of this contract is derived from the Greek epic poem, "The Odyssey." In it the protagonist and ship's captain Ulysses (Greek name, Odysseus) desires to hear the song of the sirens. The goddess Circe told him that any sailor who heard this song would be so mesmerized by it's enchanting qualities that they would direct their ship towards the source of the song and crash it into the perilous rocks of a nearby island. He was to avoid the area at all costs. However, Ulysses's curiosity was so strong, that he came up with a plan for him to hear the song. He filled the ears of his crew with wax, rendering them unable to hear. Then he had himself bound tightly to the mast of the ship. What's more, he had given his crew instructions that no matter how he reacted, they were to keep on sailing forward, and not untie him, until they were safely beyond the reach of the siren's song.
See the similarities between this and the first story? In this case, Ulysses submitted to literally have himself bound, but the principle is the same. In both cases there's a contract that restricts future freedoms in an effort to achieve an outcome (and it case you were wondering, Ulysses's plan succeeded as well).
This is one of the most popular parts of the Odyssey, even thought it takes up less than 40 lines (in a poem that's over 12,000 lines long). In thinking about it, I'm starting to understand why.
Ulysses' dilemma is a very human weakness and one people face everyday. We can look at ourselves as two different people: the 'now' self, and the 'future' self. The 'now' self is smart. He (or she) can see all of your options and the potential consequences of each choice. He is capable of making informed, rational decisions about what you ought to do in any given moment. Unfortunately, the 'future' self is the person who actually faces those decisions and the 'future' self is weak. Given the opportunity, he (or she) gives in to the moment and often makes poor choices. Whether that choice is a cigarette, a credit card purchase, an extra slice of cheesecake, or just one more episode of "Lost", the concept is the same. It doesn't matter what your better judgment says. That person is gone when the time to decide arrives.
That's why the Ulysses contract is so interesting. It give you a way to strong-arm your future self into making the best choice.
Such is the aim of a Russian treatment for alcoholism known as the Dovzhenko method. It's crazy, folks. I won't go into much detail, (you can hear the full story here, explained much better than I can) but I'll summarize. The concept is to implant a small pill underneath the skin, which contains the chemical Disulfiram. It has the effect of causing a litany of horrible symptoms... potentially even death, to the person who consumes even a small bit of alcohol while the treatment is active. While the seriousness of the symptoms and the length of the active period is under scrutiny, the controversial method is a bona-fide Ulysses contract. And like the others, it often works.
Alcoholics Anonymous actually uses the contract too, though in a much different way. Their program is designed to create strong social structures that, while not binding, are very influential in preventing you from drinking.
There are even apps and websites like stickk.com, that allow you to build your own Ulysses contracts and actually commit to your goals. The list goes on and on.
Of course, I'm not exempt from the human weakness we've been discussing. Nobody is. For me, the 'now' Bryan sets his alarm so he can get up early and do some to-do list butt kicking. Unfortunately, the 'future' Bryan usually prefers to sleep in. On and on, goes the endless battle between these two people. 'Future' Bryan also has a procrastination problem. If knowing your enemy is half the battle, then it's the easy half. I've got a pretty good idea of who this 'future' Bryan bloke is. It's being clever enough to outsmart the guy that's the challenging part. Let me know if you have any ideas (lifehacker links are acceptable too).
I am an adult but it wasn't long ago that I was a child. Now I am a father, and in the transition from being a son to being a father, I became aware of how unbalanced the adult-child relationship actually is. As a kid, I most often interacted with my teachers, parents, and friends' parents, which led to the buildup of a set of assumptions. Now, I live with adults, I work with adults, and I am an adult (at least, I feel like one). Being on the other side, I've discovered that adults are not the people I thought they were. Here is a list of the most incorrect assumptions I used to have.
Adult development is static
It always seemed to me that kids were the only ones growing. I now know that adults grow too. The difference is that kids are forced to grow, as their bodies change and their responsibilities expand. Adults must choose to grow, by intentionally placing themselves in situations outside their comfort zone. For the adults that make that choice, they can look forward to a lifetime of growth.
Adults are patient
This is a lie. Adults only look patient because as masters of their environment they seldom have to wait for anything. Parents will harp on their kids to wait their turn, but on the occasions that you see those same people stuck in traffic or on hold with customer support, you'll realize that this is one of those areas where many adults still need to grow up.
Adults exercise self-control
This is the biggest lie of them all. An adult's lack of self-control doesn't usually result in a temper tantrum but it is pervasive in a variety of other forms. You'll see it in mindless gossip, heated arguments, drunkenness, dodging responsibility, over-eating, consumer debt, infidelity, online flame wars, grudges, bitterness, strained relationships with in-laws, fault-finding, divorce, lawsuits, materialism, communication breakdowns, disorganization, disrespect, racism, bigotry, and many other attitudes that harm families and send negative ripples throughout our communities.
All in all it seems that parents tend to be hypocrites… scolding their children for the very behaviors they fail to correct in themselves. Christ had several teachings around this topic (he had a way of calling out hypocrites). He called the pharisees "whited sepulchers" who looked respectable on the outside, but on the inside were filled with "dead men's bones" . He commanded them to clean the inner vessel first , and to cast the beam out of their own eye, before searching for motes in the eyes of others . These teachings take on new meanings when applied to the parent reproving a child.
However, a few of my childhood assumptions were actually correct. I'll leave you with just one.
Adults are boring
While there are exceptions, this one is largely true. At our annual family reunions in Star Valley, Wyoming, the adults would congregate in the family room and talk. I would stand there for a little bit, but I would instantly become bored and run off to hunt for bugs, or rocks, or materials to build a fort out of. Then, occasionally, I'd pop back in to see what was going on but I would always find them still sitting there, talking. We just drove 8 hours so you could all sit here and talk?!? No water-balloon fight? No Frisbee throwing? Not even a board game? In their defense, we actually would have these activities, but to me it seemed like nearly 90% of their time was just spent in that living room… talking. BORING!
Are we really a family of four?
A family of four... that phrase sounds so strange to me. It's like we're the perfect, stereotypical, American family. But it isn't what I thought It would be like. When I think of such a family, I picture my Mom, my Dad, and two curious boys. But I'm not my Dad... at least not yet.
My Dad was strong, principled, and always completely in control. He didn't ever sleep in, or forget to take out the trash, or arrive late to church, or over-commit himself, or procrastinate getting an oil change. He didn't react in anger, fall through on a commitment, make a selfish choice, or give in to a guilty pleasure. He certainly wasn't afraid... not of change, or people , or uncertainty, or public speaking, or spiders, or whatever things people are afraid of. Of course, he was flawed. His singing wasn't great, and his dancing was worse, but when it came time to sing or dance, he always made a noble attempt. He wouldn't refuse, or shy away from the possibility of embarrassment. He was above such tendencies, or so I thought.
Now that I have a real education, a real job, and two kids of my own, I keep expecting to wake up one day and be just like him.
But I don't.
I struggle every day to not take the path of least resistance, but I often do it anyways. I'm afraid of all sorts of things... of making a bad impression, of saying the wrong thing, of demonstrating how ignorant I actually am. I seek validation and I want to impress my friends. I think of myself before others. Of course, I have some qualities. My dancing isn't bad, and my singing is better, but I shy away from opportunities to share my talents with others. I get frustrated with my kids, and even more frustrated with myself.
These flaws of mine always seem to stick around, despite my efforts to overcome them. And slowly, I'm realizing that this perfect, stereotypical, American family I've been looking forward to having, doesn't actually exist.
Is there really anybody out there who is completely in control? Who is selfless? Who has no fear? Does anybody perfectly balance their priorities, skillfully dividing their time across the things competing for their attention? Are we not the only ones who are living like "The Simpsons" in a picturesque, 21st century "Leave it to Beaver" America?
President John F. Kennedy said, “The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds." Perhaps this is not only true, but also ideal. We cannot go through the next stages of our lives, riding on the same assumptions that got us through the previous stages. Maybe my family of four won't be exactly as I expected, but it can still be good. For me that means reinventing the kind of father I ought to be, in a way that is compatible with who I am.