Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cause and Effect

Our brains want desperately to make sense of things. We like being able to point to causes for the things that happen. At the very least, we have someone or something to blame. That there are actual causes for so many events makes it all the more appealing. We just aren't always accurate in where we place blame. In fact, our minds fool us often enough that there is a specific term for drawing conclusions based more on assumption than actual data: false cause.

If I have a fight with my wife and wake up one morning to find my pet iguana dead, I could conclude that she killed my helpless lizard friend. It certainly makes sense. She was angry, so she committed an act of vengeance. It's what people do. I've seen movies and read books about it. But if I realize that the temperature dropped below freezing the previous night, I might conclude that he froze to death. If I care enough, I could start looking for evidence to support either cause and effect relationship.

When I remember that the power went out for awhile during that cold night, I could conclude that his electric heat rock wasn't doing its job. And in the absence of physical wounds on his fragile reptile body, I may owe my wife an apology for thinking she could sink so low. But my green, scaly confidant could just as easily have been sick. When it comes down to it, what do I really know about iguanas? Maybe I had been so busy that I never even noticed his declining energy and the glassy look in his eyes for the past week. He could have died of loneliness for all I know.

But not being able to draw a line back to a cause drives me crazy. I want his death to make sense. I want to know that I had some power to do something differently and get a different result. When it comes down to it, I want life to make sense. Every little bit of it. Knowing why (or at least believing that I know) somehow makes the things I don't like easier to accept and it makes the things I do like appear to be more than just happenstance. If I like what happened, I can attribute it to something that I did, or I can attribute it to a higher power. If I don't like what happened, I can look for someone to blame. That can be a higher power, too. Who ultimately killed my poor iguana, after all?

Uncovering this trick that our minds play on us is one of the building blocks of the tools taught in the More To Life program. Our minds draw shortcuts that make the most sense so that we can get on with the important business of our day without trying to figure out the why behind every event. But when those assumptions are wrong, we can mistakenly try to correct pieces of the puzzle that actually fit just fine. Or we can continue down a path that isn't really headed where we want to go. Which is why I value feedback from other insightful people who might see things I miss, and it's why I choose to open my mouth and express the things I notice.

We can't know the causes for every event. When we are committed to staying conscious, though, we can develop the partnerships and practices that will keep up us on track for what we want to create. And we can begin to recognize the difference between the things we actually know and the assumptions our mind tricks us into believing.

For the record, no iguanas were harmed in the writing of this post.

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