And while this might seem a discouraging word for those of us who are newly committed to lose weight, stop smoking, stop drinking, start exercising, spend money more wisely, and eat healthier food (and God forbid, the folks out there somewhere who are aiming to do all of the above), the inevitability of disappointment is not necessarily a bad thing.
Or, so I tell myself.
I spent several decades of my life trying hard to succeed and get ahead by working harder and more frantically, and being better organized, than the competition. And yet, I rarely got the results that I was after.
Was I a victim of plain bad luck, or was there something larger and more insidious at work? The answer was yes, to both.
As it turned out, one of the many subjects I didn’t learn about in college was a Columbia University sociologist named Robert K. Merton. One of the things he’s known for is creating the phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy,” but his major work was in a field he named “The Law of Unintended Consequences.”
In a nutshell: If we take Action A, in order to cause Result B, this may or may not happen. We may get Result C or D, instead. But even if Action A achieves Result B, chances are there’ll be a little side-result or two, call them C and D, scurrying around the periphery somewhere to mess up the neat, attractive outcome we had in mind.
In an even smaller nutshell: virtually everything we do, as human beings, has results that are different than we expected. [Insert scary “Twilight Zone” theme song, here.]
The lessons this provides for human behavior are multitude. And their seriousness increases with the amount of wealth or power that a person has achieved. Any military commander, for instance, who tells Congress that invading XYZ country will be “a simple operation” or “just a surgical air strike” is not only wrong from the git-go, he/she is flying in the face of centuries of real-world experience —much of it in Afghanistan, alone.
But what really blows my mind (as we used to say in the beloved 1960s) is that while Merton began honing his concept in the 1930s and received both Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships, a similar idea was being taught some 2,500 years ago.
The teacher, known as one Gautama Buddha, observed that a large portion of human suffering comes from being disappointed when our fondest hopes and plans get rained on. Or rained out, or whatever metaphor seems most appropriate at the time.
Think of how much emotional pain and suffering could be prevented if there were a better way. It’s called “non-attachment,” and scholars over the centuries have written an ocean of papers about what it means or doesn’t mean.
The best Cliff’s Notes version I’ve seen is, “Remember that all things come and go.” “But...but...but...” our senses say. “If we don’t care about what happens, then we just sit in a chair somewhere and turn into vegetables, right? Don’t we have to plan and strive to be human, much less to be the best human we can be?”
Absolutely. Nothing wrong with planning and striving with Strategy A to achieve Goal B. But chances are, you’ll reach Goal C instead. With maybe a fraction of D and E thrown in, for fun or frustration purposes. Our options with such an outcome are to cry, laugh, or else a response so far out in Left Field we could never have predicted it even with a whole crate of Magic 8-Balls.
My own goal, in 2014, is to enlarge my repertoire of emotional responses to Unintended Consequences. Because goodness knows, they’re already in the works.
My favorite quote of 2013: “Why is it that we never get what we want, just the things we kind-of want? I guess it’s God’s way of keeping us in the game.”
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM and is archived afterward on his website.