Friday, June 19, 2015

On Temptation

Src: Family Guy

Are you really sure you mean "temptation"?

How should you treat your temptation? Kill it with fire and bury its ash at the bottom of Challenger Deep, I propose. Words are powerful. When something is called a temptation, it is not just described, it is infused with emotions, the speaker's emotions. The only difference between a temptation and a calling is the emotions people have for them. In one case, the desire is regarded as unwise, wrong, or immoral, while the other is righteous. This perception frames temptation and limits the scope of discussion.

What is much more interesting is the thought process through which our limbic brain chooses to throw a desire into either temptation or calling basket, and our neocortex brain tries to figure out if it makes sense to pursue the desire, or not. The limbic brain, or the old brain, is at the core of human brain and is responsible for, among many things, emotion, motivation, learning and memory. The neocortex brain, or the new brain, is the outer layer of human brain and is what sets us apart from animal. Neocortex brain is responsible for all the reasoning we are capable of. When the limbic brain and neocortex brain disagree with each other, when reasoning doesn't match emotion, we don't feel "right" and that, possibly, is the most common feeling towards desire.

Limbic brain, as a part of the bigger autonomic nervous system, doesn't take command from its human. So all my attempts in the past to smash some senses into my feeling has been futile. These days, I am trying to make my neocortex listen to its pigheaded colleague more. And that consists of three principles.

Principles, because I am an engineer

We human want shit lot of things. I should know it, because everyday I talk to myself "I want to read that book", "I want to understand all the charts Google Analytics is showing me", "I want to learn a new (programming) language". And I actually ended up doing a lot of that.
  • I studied Spanish, though a rational decision would have been to finish my Mandarin
  • I tried to play guitar, only to find out that I have no sense of beat and rhythms
  • I built a company and watched it falling apart, crushing some of my best friendships in the process
I am sure you too can relate to an awful lot of things you did and wished you had not. If I get to make those decisions again, would I do differently? Errr ya, I didn't get burned for nothing. I learned a bit here and there and I am a bit wiser now. But that shouldn't be the question. Given that I cannot travel between multiverses, I will never be given the same situation twice. Projecting what would I do differently if the same event happens in the future gives a false sense of security and improvement.

The one question that more likely to haunt me is "5 years, 10 years from now, would I regret not doing that?". Notice that I try to imagine what I would think in a relatively long period from now. I have learned that right after the event, there is always a strong sense of regret, like a hangover Monday.

I regret a lot of decisions in my life. But a few good ones gave me unparalleled experience, If I didn't fall into those "temptation", none of that would have a chance to exist, I would have less scars on my soul, I might even be fatter because I wouldn't have to think that much. And my life would be anything but a shell of the current one.

And that is my first principle "How haunting it would be for not doing this?"

Steve Jobs had an excellent speech about connecting the dots. Somewhere along the lines, he stated that we can only connect the dots looking backward and that we have to believe the dots will somehow connect in your future and let our guts take the lead. I think the dots have the power to project future too, if you get out of the way.

Once in a while, I stop and look back at my life, I experience this vision where I observe my younger self from a third-person view (and feel extremely embarrassed, like the time I was 3 and told mom proudly about this girl I liked in kindergarten) (or just now when I realized it is kindergarten, not kindergarden :| ).  I also start to see patterns in my life, things that I want to do more, can do once in a while and would be happy to remove completely. Patterns have followed me for twenty-something years of my life are there for a reason, and probably will continue to do so for another 20 years. After which I will have my midlife crisis and go nuts.

Of course there are cases where people change so suddenly and profoundly that the event voids all prior history data. Growing up, every of us must have experienced this once or twice. But I guess when you remember the event, you also remember about the context, the way people treat you (both good and bad) and the intensive shift of emotions you went through. And that kinda remind you why you are who you are. Though I agree that those emotions are hard to express, because not all of us are Murakami.

Biologically, neocortex governs reasoning and short-term memory, but when it becomes experience and merges with emotions, it falls under the domain of limbic brain. That's why the way historians depict a period you were in doesn't feel right. At least my dad told me so.

And that is my second principle, you didn't pop out and be twenty-something out of no where, listen to your experience.

The final principle is about finding a balance. Because doing just whatever you feel like doesn't always make you a noble achiever, more like it makes you a criminal. I have this urge that whenever I cross the streets of Saigon, I want to kick a passing by biker and see what happens.

I think freedom is overrated, not because Vietnam is in communism. But because as an engineer, everywhere I see, I see constraints. And they seem to be there for good reasons. As a society, we need order so that we can live in harmony. Too much order and everything is boring. But we also need chaos, because come on, can you imagine a world where you have laws for about everything?

The key is to strike for the area in the middle, "the edge of chaos", or "the edge of order". I think they are the same thing, but I prefer the later, starting for order and moving toward chaos is easier to navigate for me. What it means to me is to keep the constraints to the minimum and let my heart tell me the rest.

But what are the constraints? That is a very good question. Unfortunately, like many other good questions, I don't have the answer for that. But I can try to explain. Let's look at my favorite extracurricular activity at school: skipping class and go to game center. For some of my friends, the constraint was not to skip any class at all. From a very few others, it was not to go to class at all. But I guess most of us would avoid these extremes and go for somewhere in the middle, like what I did. My constraint back then was not to let my parents know about my "extracurricular activities". As long as the constraint was preserved, I had complete freedom to go to either class or game center. I ended up graduating from high school just fine.

My plan didn't always work. Every once in a while, my teacher would call home to check my sickness and my father would be like "shit he did it again"  and make up some good excuses and go pick up the biggest stick he could find. It is indeed safer to stick to the safe zone, ie not skipping class, and nothing can go wrong there. If I played it safe, my life would be a bit less lively, the sky in my memory more grayish and grass more yellow, but I would pass by high school peacefully. And as an adult, I could keep the same strategy and I wouldn't be hurt. But the thing is, I don't want to just survive, I want to have my stories, I want to connect to the people in my life. And I can't manage to connect to them while keeping my defense stance, with a stick. There is a risk associated with that, and I was hurt, but as time goes by, I am getting better at choosing what damage I can take, what I can't.

I guess that what my counselor meant by "stepping out of your comfort zone" but back then I couldn't understand why doing things I wasn't comfortable with could make me feel better, it just made me sick. I still don't understand that now, I just made up my own theory.


I am sorry I took you on such a long detour, and in the end doesn't tackle much on temptation itself. That's because I don't want to look at the tip of the iceberg and overlook fundamental problems. Though splitted into 3 principles, I guess at the end of the day, what I wanted to say is that, in most of the cases, you have already got the answer, and all the consults you are seeking for, is to justify that spark of feeling. I think that we, in general, are spending more time to consume information, and less time for retrospection and generating original thoughts. Because it is much easier to look for a 3-min tip on resisting temptation on the Internet, than to take a good look into the mess that has built up in your mind over the years.

Think about it, I am wearing clothes someone else made, writing this post on a computer someone else made. The only thing I can make, are my thoughts. And if even those thoughts aren't original, then I don't know what I am doing with my life.

Src: Deep Dark Fears

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