How to Protect Yourself Against Pop Inspirational “wisdom"

Beware the sometimes-right move posing as the always-right move.

Posted Jun 06, 2017

Once upon a time you came to a fork in the road. You decided to turn left and you’re glad you did—so glad, you declared your one-time winning move was "The Winning Move: Always turn left." Indeed, you became a zealot for turning left, spearheading a campaign to have all GPS devices only guide people to only make left turns.

Once upon a time you were playing poker and won big by holding, not folding. You resolved that from now on you’re only going to hold, never fold. You tell everyone about the winning move you discovered.

Crazy, of course, but we do something like that in the moral realm, overgeneralizing our sometimes-successful moves as always-successful moves as though you win at the game of life with an always-winning move.

Life isn’t a game in the sense of being just fun and games. Life is high stakes; games are not. Also, unlike games, life’s rules change over time or else we’d still be living by all the rules from long ago. Some rules stay the same—gravity for example. But not our social norms. We act on them and, in the process change them.

Still, life is like a game in that we all want to win—succeed, not fail by our diverse personal standards. And, as in games, we make “moves” (the equivalent of go left, go right, hold or fold) that can be sorted out and named. We have lots of names for different kinds of social moves. For example, to love, forgive, be kind, honest, mindful, steadfast, courageous, or serene. These names all have positive connotations, which makes them sound like always-good moves. Since courage sounds good, so there’s your rule: always be courageous; never be uncourageous (a word with negative connotations)

Setting aside the positive connotation, what is courage? The serenity prayer gives us a definition—it’s an emotion that motivates us to try to change (improve) something.

Is it always best to feel the motivation to try to change or improve something? Can you think of a situation in which it’s better to not try to improve something? How about trying to make your partner someone they’re not?

If you can think of even one exception to the rule, apparently there are exceptions, and maybe it’s not a rule at all any more than “always go left,” or “always hold.”

The serenity prayer goes on to indicate that “always be courageous” is not a one-move-wins-all solution. If it were, you wouldn’t need to quest for “the wisdom to know the difference” between situations that call for courage and serenity.

Serenity also sounds always-good. Stripped of its positive connotations what is it? The opposite of courage, the motivation to accept a situation as un-improvable.

Now can you think of a situation in which accepting a situation as un-improvable is the wrong move? How about if a husband keeps beating his wife?

You wouldn’t need to know that difference between situations that call for courage or serenity if you could be both serene and courageous at once.

You’ll find inspirational quotes arguing an always-rule like “you can change anything (therefore always have courage)” or “you can’t change anything; you can only change your attitude (therefore always have serenity)." In both cases, you have a sometimes-good move (serenity or courage) pretending to be an always-good move.

The old country song, “You’ve got to know when to hold, know when to fold” is like the serenity prayer. It’s not just saying that holding and folding are both sometimes-good, sometimes-bad move; it’s saying you should quest (you’ve got to know when to…) for the wisdom to know the difference between situations that call for these opposite moves holding and folding.

The biggest impediment to practical wisdom—not just on high-minded moral issues but on all decisions in life—is proclaiming a sometimes-good move is an always-good move for winning the game. It’s not just bad because it will steer you wrong. It probably won’t, since you’re too practical to simply follow your always-right-move rules. Rather, it’s an impediment because proclaiming such rules causes you to mangle and distort your definition of the move.

You pledge to always go left, but of course, you don’t. You’re more practical than that. But when people call you on the hypocrisy of claiming that one should always go left, you stretch the definition to cover whatever direction you do go. “Well, I still believe one should always go left, and I did go left, even though I went right.”

Again, sounds crazy but we mangle definitions a lot in the moral realm. We say things like:

“Of course, one should always be courageous. I am, even when I’m accepting that I can’t improve the situation.”

“Of course, one should always be loving. I am even when I wish that Trump would fail.”

“Of course, on should always be mindful and living in the present. I am, even when I’m busy thinking about the past or future.”

Nothing stunts our growth of wisdom like such definition-mangling to defend these always-right-move rules we make up.

“Hold” and “fold” are names for rules in Poker, a game people play to win. To say “always hold” is to collapse the complexity of trying to win the game into the simplicity of having the one always-right move that wins it.

There are few games in which you can do that—games like tic-tac-toe in which you should always block your opponent’s lines, or Monopoly, in which you should generally buy any property you land on. That’s what makes them boring games for adults.

Life is way more complicated than such games. If it were that simple, you could be replaced by a machine that follows simple rules, and always wins. You could have a phone app that reminds you to always make the always-right move and you would always win.

Some of us have that app, one that feeds us inspirational quotes. Here are some random inspirational quotes. They sound great, stirring in us that sense that we’re reading something profound, final and universally true.

Pop that bubble and look for situations in which they are exactly the wrong guidance. If you can find even one exception it’s not the absolute rule it pretends to be.

Remember the truth doesn’t have to be defending. There’s no need to fight. Go within instead.
A dictator’s sent his goons to kill your family. No need to fight? Go within instead?

Remember you are beautiful and whole and that you can trust your process.
You’re the dictator. People don’t trust your process, but you should trust it anyway?

Nothing is impossible, the word itself says “I’m possible!”
Living on the sun is possible?

It’s never too late to be what you might have been.
On your deathbed, launching a career as a neuroscientist from an almost dead start?

In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take.
I regret not taking a chance by getting hooked on heroin?

It’s always the simple that produces the marvelous.
Like the simplification of faith healing compared to medicine?

Love is always the answer.
Loving nuclear war?

What drives us to make such broad and unwise claims of having found The Winning Move? That’s another article. Meanwhile, here’s a poem that asks and answers that question:

For a Moment 
by Ron Padgett

It's funny how
if you just let go
of things they

will come to
you. That is to say
sometimes. So what

good is such a
Ah, it makes you

feel good to say
such things from
time to time,

as if you actually
and really and truly
knew something!