As a lifelong ‘seeker,’ my path has led me all over the map. I have studied philosophy, religion, the intuitive arts, quantum field theory and a smattering of other topics too numerous to count. If there is one thing I have learned it is that the more I seek, the less I know. I say this because the more you look for ‘truth,’ the bigger and less attainable you realize that truth is. That being said, keeping my eyes peeled on that far horizon has made for an interesting journey . . . and helping others to do the same has been one of the true joys of my career as a therapist .
Sometimes when helping clients to navigate one of life’s great passages, they will begin to question if their current experience (whatever it is) came about due to chance or destiny. This often leads to some exploring between the clients and me about the nature of destiny vs. free will, which is always a compelling conversation. Is there such thing as an accident? Are some of our life experiences pre-destined and therefore unavoidable? Is there anything that we as individuals can do to decidedly chart the course of our lives? My job is never to give ‘the answer,’ but instead to help them find their own answer. Often, if we look to our past and start naming where both choice and destiny seemed to play a part, we can begin to see how the two forces weave together in our lives. Often times our predictable near future can be seen in our past, especially if we are not consciously pushing ourselves beyond our own ingrained ways of reacting.
We are creatures of habit, and we live in a world that subtly reaffirms this trait. Think of the time-honored quote that we are all familiar with: “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” What that quote is really encouraging is complacency. Complacency is a slow poison, when left to permeate a life, results in many negative events. I see examples of this every week, in my therapy practice. An employee who has been burning out for years, but has remained a ‘good worker’ and shown up, done his job, and never complained. Suddenly he has faced a termination, because the boss says that his work became stale and uninteresting. Couples in a failing marriage, who so often quote some variation of this theme, “We just quit trying new things, and then we grew apart.”
The human mind tends to be rather rigid. If we have had success doing something one way, by nature we tend to overlook new ways, and often better ways to do it in the future. There is a name for this cognitive inflexibility we are prone to; it s called the Einstellung Effect. The Einstellung Effect refers to the tendency that we human beings have to repeat a familiar solution, even when there are better solutions available. If there is a negative value to having a successful experience, this is it.
A recent study that took place with experienced chess players looked at the Einstellung Effect. Researchers asked them to find the shortest path to checkmate. All of them identified a very common five-move strategy. Researchers then asked them to keep looking for another solution, but none of them could see a less common three-move strategy that lay before them . When a second group was asked to do the same task, and the common five-move strategy was unavailable, every player was able to see the three-move strategy. They could see it because the familiar five-move strategy was not blocking their vision!
Imagine that life, for each of us, is that same chess game. Every day we have a set number of moves that we can make in any direction, yet most of us, day in and day out, will take the same common ‘five- move’ route. When we take the same route, we land in the same spot as the day before. True, this may not always be disastrous, but over time is there any way that we cannot become complacent? Unfortunately, oftentimes what bumps us out of our ‘five-move,’ routine is a crisis. My job as a therapist is to help people move away from growth that is induced by crisis and to move toward a growth- oriented way of living in their daily lives. It is only when we begin to see with new eyes that those brilliant new strategies appear on the horizon.
So back to my beginning statement about the nature of destiny vs. free will. If we imagine that life is like a chess game, perhaps the hand of free will plays the white pieces, and the hand of destiny plays the black. A mixed bag for sure, but it leaves us quite a bit of leverage with our choices.
Ask yourself, do you want to keep playing the same old moves with the chess pieces of your life? New strategies require growth, forward movement, and an ability to see beyond the lure of successful past experiences. So, even though most of us are very familiar with that old adage of not fixing something that is not broken, perhaps we should look toward a new horizon, and ask ourselves if we are really satisfied to allow our tomorrow, to be no greater than our today.