Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Illusion of Choice

March 1995

It was senior year. Two months before graduation. I still hadn't decided which college I would be attending in the fall. One one hand there was Louisiana Tech, biomedical engineering, my best friend, and little scholarship money. On the other hand was Florida A&M University, business school, no friends, and a full five year ride. The weight of this choice pinned me in place like an anchor. Which way to go?

* * *

We've all experienced potentially life-altering choices like the one above. It is part of the experience of living and learning. We are each tested in unique ways. But the more I think about it, the more I realize how little choosing I've actually done in my life. I know it sounds wild. We make choices everyday don't we? What clothes to wear, what to eat, how fast to drive to work, whether or not to work out, whether or not to smoke, drink, take drugs, go to church, believe in God. The list of choices is endless.

What if I told you that the word we use to describe the paths we choose in the rat maze is nothing more than an illusion? What if I told you that what we call choice is actually instinct on steroids?

Dictionary.com defines choice as follows:

1. an act or instance of choosing; selection: Her choice of a computer was made after months of research. His parents were not happy with his choice of friends.
2. the right, power, or opportunity to choose; option: The child had no choice about going to school.
3. an alternative: There is another choice.

Choice has a ton of synonyms: alternative, appraisal, cull, decision, determination, discretion, discrimination, distinction, druthers*, election, evaluation, extract, favorite, finding, free will, judgment, opportunity, option, pick, preference, rating, say, substitute, variety, verdict, volition, vote, weakness.

Interestingly but not surprising, instinct is not mentioned as a synonym. Dictionary.com defines instinct as follows:

1. an inborn pattern of activity or tendency to action common to a given biological species.
2. a natural or innate impulse, inclination, or tendency.
3. a natural aptitude or gift: an instinct for making money.
4. natural intuitive power.

It's surprising to me that choice and instinct are not mentioned together more often, because don't our natural and innate impulses precede any sort of decision making capacity? Don't our actions have alot more to do with our inborn patterns and tendencies than intense cognitive activity. Do the smartest people make the best choices? Do the dumbest make the worst? Or is what separates us in reality who has truly honed their instincts or not?

* * *

Everything in me was telling me to take the scholarship money and run. But I didn't want to let down my best friend. LA TECH had been my idea in the first place. How could I change the plan in the 9th inning? Besides, I had never attended an all black school. The idea was so foreign, I couldn't even conceive of how it would be.

One Saturday afternoon, I was in my bedroom reading, when my mother told me someone was on the phone wanting to speak with me. She described this person as my Godmother. Very strange, because up until that moment, I wasn't even aware that I had one...

* * *

What's the first thing that happens to you when you have a major decision to make. Does a little voice speak to you, nudging this way or that? Do you listen to this voice, or have you learned to ignore it?

I have to interview people frequently for my work and I have learned to listen to this sense. I get feelings off of people. Some good, some bad, some blah, but there's always something. Some signal as to the inner nature of the creature before me.

* * *

My Godmother introduced herself, and mentioned that the last time she'd seen me was when I was an infant. I responded accordingly, and then she preceded to explain why she wanted to speak with me. Apparently she was a close personal friend of the university president. She spoke eloquently of all the reasons going to a historically black university would be beneficial for me. I was sceptical. This woman didn't know anything about me, but was trying to give me advice about the most important decision of my young life...

* * *

I googled frontal cortex and choice and got an interesting website (http://www.actualfreedom.com.au/library/topics/instincts.htm). The site talks about the amygdala or thoughtless instinctual braincenter and the cortex or thoughtful instinctual braincenter. Interesting how instinct prevails in both settings. Which leads me to wonder, if we are wired to make all choices, either thoughtless or thoughtful, based on instincts, than there really isn't any choice, is there? We are either reacting emotionally or logically to some stimulus. And if we can only react, then we really are more like puppets than we may like to think.

From the womb to the tomb, all we do is react. We come out of the womb and react to the cold and light. We grow up and react to inner biological changes as well as our ever evolving external environment. We learn more about ourselves and react to that inner guidance that some call conscience. I'm sitting here racking my brain, and can't remember a time when I acted of my own accord. Can you?

* * *

I decided to go to Florida A&M shortly after hanging up the phone. My Godmother's arguments were persuasive true, but that's not what swayed me. There are signs out there that help us make the right choices and I was keenly aware that this strange woman calling me out of the blue was one such example. And if there are signs guiding us right when we need them, then doesn't it stand to reason that we really have less control over this whole scenario than we'd like to believe?

I like playing this game. I take a moment in my life and go back trying to connect the dots that have lead me to the current situation. Try it out. I think you'll find that what you thought were choices were actually suttle or not so suttle nudges in one direction or another.

Many people reject the idea that our lives are not our own to live. I understand that notion. No one wants to believe that they have no control over their own destiny. But I think it's more productive surrending myself to my destiny. My hands are on the wheel and it doesn't matter much to me who's actually driving.

I recently read a book called the God Delusion where the author painstakingly goes about proving that God does not exist. But the illusion of choice proves to me that we are not alone in this.

To finalize, here's a poem I wrote on the subject. Food for thought. Grab a plate.

The Feather and the Rainbow

Once upon a time...
There was a feather flowing with the breeze,
Going with the winds and doing as it pleased.
From each day to the next, it did not know what would occur,
Until the day the wind died and the feather could not stir.
The feather in this moment began to question its existence,
And it decided that against the wind it would gather a resistance.
It was tired of never knowing what was next to come,
And the feather could no longer recall where it had come from.
In the aimless existence that it had known for so long,
Suddenly the feather realized that everything with its life was wrong.
Because to live a life without a purpose or a plan,
Was as foolish as traveling to the desert in search of a tan...
Still, the feather had no notion of how to reclaim its control,
And all the days of recklessness had taken their toll.
Just then, the winds current once again began to rise,
The feather screamed out Why? The wind drowned out its cries.
Now for the first time it could recall, the feather no longer wished to live,
For it had only taken from life and did not understand how to give.
It had struggled, it had fought, but to no avail,
Because in its life it had only learned how it felt to fail.
At one with the wind in the sky once again,
The feather vowed to take control of its life right then.
By learning from the mistakes it had made in its time,
The feather could rotate its life from pitiful towards the sublime...
The feather now realized that it had little choice in where it went,
But it still hoped to make an impact, and promised good intent.
For it had finally began to grasp with understanding,
What really took place during that fateful landing.
By catching a glimpse of its own mortality,
The feather had to adjust its perception of reality.
For the wind was not the enemy that the feather had to fear,
Its enemy was the ignorance that it deemed so dear.
Faced with these truths the feather was humbled,
And as if in agreement with this action the skies began to rumble.
The feather, now lost in the elation of its epiphany,
Thought the sounds from thunderclouds a beautiful symphony...
Unaware that there was trouble on the way,
The feather for the first time tried to pray.
It wanted to give thanks to its creator,
For sending the powerful message sooner and not later.
The feather nearly bursting with its hope for tomorrow,
Did not see the clouds growing dark with sorrow.
As the skies started to cry and pummel the earth,
The feather realized just how much its life was worth.
Its joy turner to disdain with the first jolt of pain,
Still the feather prayed harder trying to speak through the rain.
With no place to go and no place to hide,
Soaked with cold the feather shivered, withered, and slowly died...
The feather now realized that life was rarely fair,
Life did not coddle and life did not care.
It was the ultimate test full of strife and stress,
So the feather was grateful to finally receive rest.
Interrupting these final thoughts then a voice began to speak,
It answered the feathers questions and gave it a peek.
A peek that showed the feather its own soul,
A warm place full of light part of a greater whole.
The voice then showed the feather a new vision,
And conveyed to the feather the reason for life's mission.
Overcome with love the feathers soul began to overflow,
Just as the rain subsided revealing a glorious rainbow...

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Rejection #3


Have you ever felt like you're living a double life? Like you're Atlas balancing not one but two worlds on your shoulders? (Geminis need not comment) Well, one of my world's came crashing down on Tuesday as I returned home to find my third official rejection letter for my novel One Blood. The agent in question was gracious enough to give me some real feedback, which is invaluable to the editing process. But you still have to find the strength to pick yourself back up.


Since completing my first novel last year and embarking on the perilous journey to becoming a published author, I feel a lot like Neo in the Matrix. Like I'm spending my days at work and nights at home searching for something. It's like a part of me is completely unsatisfied with my life.


You know the quote "be careful what you wish for"? Well this is the war going on inside me right now.


A part of me is looking forward to ditching my corporate life and venturing into the nomadic life of the successful novelist. Never knowing what city I'll be in next, meeting and greeting thousands of strangers, discussing the merits of mine and other literature. But this is not the real life of a writer. The life of a successful writer is a life of solitude broken up by months of living on the road. The life of an up and coming wirter is about solitude and rejection.


Imagine this scenario: You wake up in the morning, whenever you want. Shower, eat breakfast, and get dressed (or not). Grab your coffee or tea or cigarretes or Jim Beam (whatever gets your mind in the right mode) and settle in front of the old laptop, or desktop, or legal pads, or typewriter (if you're old school like that), and you begin to write. And you do that for the next five or six hours. Eat. Write some more. Sleep. Wake up in the middle of the night and jot down new ideas in your idea book on your nightstand. And you repeat this process for as long as it takes until your first draft is completed. In my case 7 years.


But thats the problem. I have no idea how to live the life of a writer. The above described scenario does not apply to me. I began my first novel in January of 2000 while living in Tallahassee, FL. At the time I was a full time student pursuing my MBA, so you can imagine how much writing I got done. The novel traveled with my from residences in Sao Paulo, Brazil back to Tallahassee, to Philadelphia, PA to Yardley, PA , to Woodbridge, NJ and went with me on vacations to Lousiana, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Barace├žaba, Recife, Salvador (in Brazil). I think I have an issue with consistency and definite issues with discipline. Does that mean that I'm doomed to failure? Could be.


I understand the value of writer discipline completely. My most productive periods as a writer have been those where I have dedicated myself to a daily routine of writing. Doing this makes me feel like a real writer. But put me in a circle of real writer's and you will quickly see the odd man out. Because writing for me has always bee the other thing that I do. The other side of the slash e.g. student/writer or business unit director/writer. I sometimes wonder if to be published, will I have to eradicate the left side of the slash...


But you can be the judge. I've posted some two chapters of my novel on Urbis (www.urbis.com), just search under my name. Tell me if I've got what it takes to be a real wirter or not.


"There's nothing like rejection to make you do an inventory of yourself."

-James Lee Burke-


Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Sky is Falling



I moved to Sao Paulo, Brasil in August of last year for a temporary assignment. It was a great promotion for me, making me the youngest director in my company at 29. I work as a business unit director responsible for marketing and sales for a global pharmaceutical company, and the company was launching a new subsididiary in Latin America's largest city.


Seven years ago at the age of 23, I had my first experience in Brasil when I won an internship with another large pharmaceutical company. I lived, worked, and played in the world's 3rd largest city for 16 life changing months where among other things I became fluent in Portuguese and met the woman who ould become my wife four years later.


I don't believe in coincidences.


In around April of 2005, my bosses boss strode into my office buried inside the corporate headquarters in New Jersey, and asked me if I would be interested in taking a challenging assignment in Brasil. Now, when I joined the company in 2002, I joined with the understanding that I would never have a chance to return to Brasil, at least not with this company, because we did not have a subsidiary in this market. I asked my bosses boss, why me, and he replied that they were looking for someone in the company that had US launch experience in the cardiovascular market, was fluent in Portuguese, and had a working knowledge of the Brasilian market. And I was the only person in the whole company who fit the bill. Where do I sign up, I remarked.


My return to Brasil has been exceptionally chaotic. Moving 3000 miles, finding an apartment, launching a company, while struggling to find some kind of balance in my life. Coming back here represents the closing of a cipher of some kind for me. Seven years ago, this was where I began my first novel, (working title: One Blood). Seven years and five cities later I have finished the novel but now my dilemma is, how to get published in America from another continent. But this will be a recurring topic in my blogs, just not for today.


So last week, I'm sitting in my office at work when suddenly I hear the screams of sirens in unison. I look out my 15th floor window and in addition to the rain, I see all of this smoke coming from the local airport, Congonhas, which handles all domestic flights. People on my floor are panicked and no one really knows what's going on. My wife calls me to tell me that a plane that was trying to land there, skidded off the runway, crossed a busy highway, and crashed into a warehouse owned by the same airline. As I watched on cnn.com with bated breath, the totals began coming in, 191 dead. This marked Brasil's deadliest air disaster and the third major calamity within the past 12 months.


Last November, a passenger airline crashed into a private jet and crashed in the Amazon forest killing 154. Then in January, a subway station collapsed killing 45. And here I am, worried more about my daily sales numbers than these trajedies, numb to anything that does not affect me directly. Ignorant of the fact that these mass tragedies are slowly reshaping our world. For those of us left, we need to heed these warnings, but instead we ignore them, until we are the next one's who have to die for someone else to wake up.


Like the story of the man who desperately needed to get back to Sao Paulo last week for the birth of his daughter. He was booked on a later flight, but switched with a physician (who works very closely with me), also on the plane. The physician told me that his stomach had been hurting all day and he took advantage of getting off the plane to get some medicine for his belly. 45 minutes later, his plane had been reduced to flames. He expressed to me that it was like he got to experience everything in his life for the first time again. Holding and kissing his wife and children. Eating his dinner. Taking a shower. Everything had gained meaning to him. He had gotten a second chance at life and he was not about to waste it.


I admire him. He is certainly one of the lucky ones. But why do we have to avoid death to start living and appreciating life?


I think I've finally gotten the point. I hope that you do too.


Until we speak again..


"Life is not the opposite of death; birth is, because life has no opposite."


-Anonymous

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

American Psycho





Now that I've got your attention. Welcome to the ramblings and ruminations of Qwantu Amaru (kwan-too - a-mar-oo).





This blog begins like a good novel is supposed to, in the middle of the action. I won't bore you with my back story or anything like that, we'll get to know each other over time.


I'm currently reading American Psycho, an excellent novel by Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero, The Laws of Attraction) which marks the second week in a row that I'm reading something related to a homicidal psychopath (last weekend was Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris). I didn't do this on purpose mind you, I was just looking on my bookshelves for books I hadn't read yet and these two books happened to leap out at me in sequence.



But one shouldn't confuse Ellis's psycho, Patrick Bateman, a successful WallStreet executive, with Hannibal Lecter. They couldn't be more different on the outside. Bateman is a yuppie living the high-life during the Reagan era, Lecter is a World War II survivor. But there are similarities. Each has given up their respective humanity for what they call the hunger or blood lust that overtakes them. And both are products of their respective environments, on the nurture side of the vs. nature debate.



But hold on Qwantu. Products of their environments? What sort of upbringing or environment would make a successful, good-looking, powerful Wall Street executive, start randomly torturing and killing first women (colleagues and prostitutes), then homeless people, then animals, then anyone who crosses his path?



I'm glad you asked.


The concept is that the elite of society live by different rules then you and I do. They basically "get away with murder" everyday, meaning that they can do whatever, whenever, and however they wish. This leads to a numb, bland existence where life no longer holds any meaning. Bateman's homicidal rampage is actually a cry for help, but the world is oblivious to him. Either no one in his upper crust circle believes that he could be capable of such atrocities, or they all have demons on the same scale.



Now make the migration to a young black kid, well bred, time spent abroad and here in the states, tremendous basketball talent. This kid is raised to believe that the rules that apply to the rest of the world do not apply to him. How? because the first time he gets involved in a criminal altercation, nothing happens. Maybe he date rapes a girl while in high school and everybody is in on the cover up. And this kid makes it to the NBA and one year during the off season, sodomizes some poor receptionist at the hotel where he's rehabbing for a knee injury. And two years later still has the most popular jersey in the NBA store. But I digress.



Are we creating a class of American Psycho's. Are there a bunch of Patrick Bateman's, walking among us? Scary thought.



Much scarier to me than Hannibal Lecter, a character who, up until this point, was one of the most terrifying characters I'd ever read. But Thomas Harris has humanized his monster to the point that he is no longer scary. Like when Freddy Krueger started telling jokes. I never wanted to, or needed to, feel sorry for Hannibal the Cannibal. But I think Harris's relationship to Lecter is not unlike Truman Capote's relationship to Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Smith.



And not unlike American society's relationship and fascination with homicidal maniacs.

Like a mirror from hell, they show us the true depths of depravity and madness that exist within us all. And we can't look away.



"The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change"


Carl Rogers