The seduction of defiance.
Posted Jun 22, 2018
The expletive leaves our lips when we are about to do something we know we shouldn’t—eat a forbidden food, grab fruit from someone else’s tree, use a bus-only lane to bypass a line of traffic, put a purchase we can’t afford on a credit card, give in to a craving that spurs an alcohol binge. We know we are crossing a line. The essence of f*ck it is our awareness of the transgression. The root word trans is active, connoting a deliberate motion toward the choice.
The line we are crossing is there for a reason. One cookie or one drink may have led to binges in the past. If many passersby took an apple, the tree’s owner would be deprived of their rightful bounty. If the bus lane became occluded with single-occupant cheaters, a system intended for all would be subverted by a few. Building up credit card debt only leads to higher monthly payments and more suffering.
I want it. I need it. I deserve it. What we tell ourselves is the same, whether we are tossing aside a personal or a societal restriction. An in-the-moment burst of wanting prompts us to summon justifications. One cookie won’t matter. There’s plenty of apples on this tree. I’ll only be in the bus lane for a minute. I’ve been wanting this camera for a long time. One lousy glass of wine won’t make a difference. Then, if we give in and cross the line, there is a distinct thrill and relief in breaking free of restraint.
Self-control is tiring; it takes continual effort to keep denying ourselves what we want right now. There’s so much waiting involved, especially in being strategic financially. The rewards for harnessing our impulses are in the future, cerebral and somewhat theoretical. Meanwhile, we see other people doing the f*ck it maneuver and have to fight off feeling foolish. Being sensible feels dull, even on the way to a good life that is likely to be full of rewards for prudence.
To cheat or not to cheat? To succumb to immediate desire or contribute to the common good? Urgency, being late for an appointment, can feel much more compelling than holding to the abstract idea of a bus lane. Sure, the wellbeing of the many should take precedence over the claims of the few. We may recognize that anything supporting the good of all benefits everyone, ultimately. But that empty stretch of road calls to us, and resisting the selfish impulse is tough. I am late. F*ck it.
Moral violations are, by definition, selfish and short-sighted; adherence to principles that improve life for all are generous and future-oriented. I’m staying in this clogged lane—it’s the right thing to do. Virtue can feel good as we join with others to rise above our individualistic and grasping nature. Long ago, we learned about this trade-off in kindergarten, along with the rules on sharing, turn-taking, and putting things back where you found them. Everyone knows that a free-for-all, each person grabbing for themselves, makes a big mess on both a personal and a societal level. It is a better life for everyone when we inspire each other with the fairness and optimism of being able to count on each person doing their part.
This is where the personal and societal levels come together. To oppose the force of f*ck it, we have to remain alert for those sneaky thoughts we whisper to ourselves when we get frustrated, impatient, and envious. Bitterness and resentment, especially, feed the impetus to seize what we want just because we want it, right now, instead of pausing and pondering if this is really the right time or the right way and if this is good for ourselves and others. The first moment we notice such thoughts we have to refuse them. This capacity grows as we get older, so long as we maintain our determination to master this awareness and turn it into a reflex.
Giving up on a diet, taking liberties with another’s property, violating a traffic law, piling up unresolvable debt, and relapsing with drugs and alcohol each begin with the seduction of defiance. We throw off restraint in exchange for later pain, trying artfully at the time to avoid reckoning with the consequences. The more we push back against these impulses at their inception, the better we get at resisting their power over us. If other people have disappointed us in the past, we find that we can choose to enact our own trustworthy conduct and thus increase the likelihood of receiving the same from others. We can hold onto the kind of life we are enhancing with intention, visualizing it vividly and believing in it ardently.