Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 86

Motive Mixologist

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My teenage daughter suffers from a chronic pain condition. It’s a little like fibromyalgia, if that means anything to you. We were a little skeptical about this at first. Honestly, for a couple of years at least, we thought she was just being a wimp, and it was only from what felt like an excess of caution, checking off every box and then some, that we finally took her to see an endocrinologist. We went in feeling like we should get a medal or something for being such attentive parents. We did not walk out feeling that way.

And I have to admit that even now, when we know better, we sometimes have our moments of irritated doubt.

The other day my wife said to me, “Why is it that when our daughter is moaning and groaning my response isn’t sympathy but irritation? We know that this is real, that she really is in pain. I feel like a terrible person.”

“Well,” I responded, “maybe it’s 98% real, but it’s also 2% bullshit.”

And I felt like I’d stumbled onto an important revelation about human nature, or at least, my nature.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve always been troubled by human motives, my motives in particular. I’m always trying to get to the bottom of my intentions, trying to figure out why I was really doing something, worried that some nasty, pathetic, selfish desire was the real reason. And I can always find a convincing candidate, there is always something unattractive at least plausibly involved.

The easy part is recognizing this. The harder part is figuring out what to do about it. Let’s say I see I have an unattractive motive, now how do I change it? How can I even want to, really? By definition, how can I want to want something other than I want?

There is a great Schopenhauer quote that captures this difficulty perfectly. I wish I could say I’d come across it through diligent study of the philosophers work, but I actually got it from watching the Netflix series Dark (which, if you haven’t seen it, is kind of like a German version of Stranger Things, except not funny, if that sounds at all appealing):

The original German for this quote is so good that you’re going to have to indulge me:

“Der Mensch kann tun was er will, er kann about nicht wollen, was er will.”

Roughly translated:

“People can do whatever they want, but they can’t will what they want.”

(In German “will” and “want” are the same verb so it’s got this lovely double sense that you can’t get in English with just one word.)

The point is, we humans can do almost anything we set our minds to. It’s astonishing, some of the feats of willpower and determination in human history and culture. But the one thing we can’t do is escape our motives, the reasons why we will and do these things. It’s hard to even imagine. We can build pyramids but we can’t escape the vanity of the desire to build pyramids.

Our intentions are sometimes unattractive. When we notice them we are revolted. But how can we really want to change them? They are our wants. If we think we are working against or around our motives, we are kidding ourselves. They’re still there, underneath, undercover, playing the long game, tainting and invalidating everything we’ve built on top of them, a big pyramid of bullshit.

Maybe we’ve dressed up some action as something lovely and altruistic, if not glorious. And maybe in the end the effect of it is good and helpful to other humans. But if the motive is bad, the deepest well-spring, isn’t the whole enterprise tainted? Then it’s all a front, a cover up operation, a motive laundering operation. “A wicked tree cannot bear good fruit.”

What a normal, healthy human being would do at this point is shrug their shoulders and say, “oh well.” Or maybe call in air support from the better place awaiting in the sky. Theologians, saints, and prophets have considered this issue, after all. You may have heard my favorite G.K Chesterton quote, sort of a theological joke: “Original sin is the only doctrine that’s been empirically validated by 2,000 years of human history.”

But theological jokes notwithstanding, I have trouble letting this tainted motive question go. I feel a compulsion to always look for the motive beneath the motive, to dig deeper, to find the “Ur-motive,” the deepest, darkest motive at the bottom of them all. And it always gets dark as I go deep. And I never feel satisfied that I actually get to the bottom. I feel like I could go on forever. There’s always the motive of the part of me that’s looking at the next deepest motive to examine.That flash of satisfaction of having discovered something is itself disconcerting and suspicious and something to interrogate. It’s the infinity of looking into two mirrors. I get lost. I’m not smart enough to follow it for more than a few steps. I don’t have enough RAM.

I tend to be much more charitable with other people than with myself: their questionable motives bother me less. Though I wonder whether this is less a matter of generosity than indifference. It might just be from self-absorption that other people's tainted motives don’t trouble me so much rather than because I’m such a nice guy. Maybe if I cared about other people more, if I were more interested in them, less self-absorbed, I wouldn’t let them off the hook so easily, and I’m just spinning this indifference as kindness.

In any case, hopeless as this project is, this quest for the deepest, darkest motive, whether applied to oneself or to others, there is something true about it, in the sense that there really do be dragons here, usually, maybe even always, if we dig deep enough. But it’s not the whole truth, and it’s not, by itself, a very useful truth. Because what do we do with it?

I’ve been using a geological analogy, one motive sitting on top of another that sits on another that sits on another until we can’t dig anymore, a sort of psychological plate tectonics. But maybe there’s a different analogy from geology that can help us see the psychological reality better.

Because it’s not really like there’s one motive lying on top of another in clean, distinct, geological layers, one neatly underneath the last one. That’s not the way the human psyche works. And it’s maybe even bad geology, at least for the kinds of terrain we’re looking at here. For human motives, the better analogy is a melange, a subduction zone where different motives are compressed and mixed by tectonic forces, with all the motives present and operating at the same time.

Then we’re no longer looking at human motivations vertically, trying to discern what’s beneath what, and then what, but horizontally, asking what is the mix of motives operating at the same time, and what are the biggest, most important elements in that mix. The bad stuff doesn’t necessarily cause the good and vice versa. And they don’t necessarily cancel each other either. They’re all operating and interoperating at the same time.

So why is this a better way of looking at things? “Melange” or Subduction zone” vs. “tectonic layers?”

Well, I think it’s truer, more accurate, it explains more. But also and mainly it’s better because you can do something productive with it.

Like this:

Look, all motives are mixed. We don’t need a Schopenhauer to tell us that. But I personally at least find it all too easy to forget this obvious truth. And it makes me harder on myself and on other people than I should be. So I’ve come up with a system, more of a reality reminder than an actionable set of behaviors. As perhaps befits someone with a Glass Ceiling problem, I call it Motive Mixologist. I realize we were talking about geology before and this is yet a different metaphor, chemical, maybe even alchemical, but hey, another thing the motive mixologist mixes.

I implement Motive Mixologist using Mantrafication. In other words, it’s part of that circa 3 minute series of audio recordings I play back to myself every day when I’m booting myself up in the morning. The Motive Mixologist part is only a few seconds. Here it is, from the actual recording I use, a partial world premiere (I’ve been very shy about revealing these):

Notice the mixedness of your motives
Notice the bad parts but don’t obsess over them
Notice also the good parts
Appreciate and nurture them.

I’ve been listening to this (along with the rest of my current mantra recording) for almost a full year now, unaltered. I thought of the label, “Motive Mixologist,” much later. But the content was there since this August, 2023 recording. It’s a little embarrassing how helpful it’s been, the degree to which I have to hammer myself over the head with this obvious truth.

On the chance that you are as obtuse on this front as I am, let me unpack it a bit.

We are very good at detecting the presence of a motive in the mix, whether it exists at all, even in trace amounts. Our sensors for this are finely tuned. But we are not so good at figuring out the percentages, the relative proportions, the importance, of any one motive compared with all the rest. We imagine that the most microscopic drop of something unsavory we’ve detected is going to spoil everything else. But that’s not how the alchemy of motivations works.

There’s good and there’s bad, they exist simultaneously, and they don’t just dissolve into and invalidate each other. It’s not like “aha, there’s a bad motive, therefore the good one evaporates or isn’t real!” They both exist. They’re both real. And it’s important to be aware of both. We should notice the bad. And try to roughly weigh it. And alarms should go off if its mass blows through some critical threshold. But we shouldn’t obsess over it merely because it’s there. It’s a given that it’s there, in some amount. It would be a miracle if it weren’t.

Even the greatest saint, some little part of them was into the idea of being a saint. Simone Weil, wrote: “When I think of the Crucifixion, I commit the sin of envy.” Now that’s a pretty advanced sin. I’m not pointing this out to invalidate or besmirch saints in general or any saint in particular, certainly not Simone Weil. I suspect that the genuine saints fully realized this about themselves, to a far greater extent than the rest of us smug sinners do, and that’s why they could be truly, mostly humble

If we torture ourselves because of the mere presence of an unattractive motive we should be aware that that the torturing part of us is almost certainly even worse – more evil – than the part we are torturing and we should refuse to indulge it. (As you may remember from previous episodes, “Asmodeus,” is what I like to call this torturing part).

So notice your bad motive. And call it what it is. You don’t have to pretend bad is good. You shouldn’t. But don’t obsess over it. Obsessing over it doesn’t help anyone and is twisted kind of narcissism you shouldn’t allow yourself to indulge in. If you really want to punish yourself refrain from punishing yourself. This is the line I take with my inner sado masochist and amazingly he falls for it. Because it’s partially true. To riff on Nietzshe, he who properly despises himself does not allow himself the twisted pleasure of admiring himself as a despiser.

We should also, more importantly, notice the good parts, the good motives, however small and underdeveloped they may be, and however bad the company they may find themselves in. If they’re tiny and rare and heavily outnumbered that makes them all the more valuable to us. We should treasure them and nurture them, help them grow.

There’s a great section in King Lear, not the most optimistic play, right after blind Gloucester has given this incredibly moving and nihilistic speech to his disguised son, Edgar. One of Gloucester’s zingers is “we are to the gods as flies to wanton boys, they kill us for their sport.” Edgar then gives this equally beautiful and moving speech in an inspiring direction that ends “ripeness is all.” And then, and this is the part that’s relevant to our discussion here, Gloucester says, “and that’s true too.” I love that. It’s not that the bad part isn’t true, the gods, on some level at least, are killing us for their sport, but the good part, “ripeness is all,” is also true. We have to see both. And if we possibly can, we should emphasize the latter.

Another reason we shouldn’t despair when we see a bad motive is that it is almost certainly not the only relevant motive. There are others, maybe not exactly contradictory but at least obliquely pushing at different angles. We can harness and develop those counterwants instead of trying to get the unsavory one to somehow unwant itself and implode.

Coming back to Schopenhauer’s Mensch who can do what he wants but not will what he wants. Imagine a heroin addict. He’s not going to not want heroin. And that want is certainly not going to unwant itself. But he has other wants too. They may, individually, be weak compared to that gigantic want for heroine, but maybe, working together, they can outwant even that. And they can partner with a component want of the heroin lust that just wants happiness or a good time or salvation.

So the Motive Mixologist tolerates in himself the evil want, sees and celebrates and encourages the good wants, and sometimes even sees a way to hitch a compromised want to a better one.

He also sees the full range of wants in other people. He knows that he’s going to see stuff that annoys him. But he endeavors to see the other, better wants in the mix and prioritize those in his responses. He reminds himself that they’re true too, and just like his own better wants, need recognition and encouragement.

Or to take a more prosaic example: Here I am, recording yet another podcast. Why am I doing it? Because I am generous and want to help people? Because I am vain and want their approval? Because I get pure creative enjoyment out of it? Because there’s a .00000000001% chance it might go viral and then I’ll get rich and famous?

In the old days I would agonize over which was the real motive, that all the rest of these were just cover stories. But the truth is, all of these motives are in operation, no question. The good, the bad, and the silly. I will let the bad and silly ones be, because in this case they can pull with the good to do something (I hope) worthwhile.

So back to my daughter:

It turns out, without knowing, we were doing the right thing, though perhaps for the wrong reasons (or at least, partially for the wrong reasons). It turns out the worst thing a parent can do in these chronic pain situations, or rather, the most common bad thing parents tend to do, is to overindulge the child, to enable them to reorganize their lives around pain avoidance. It’s another case of “the hygiene hypothesis explains everything.” The more you give into the pain, the worse it gets. So without that 2% bullshit, if she were an entirely sympathetic, winsome little angel, we might have harmed her more.

Yet another way Motive Mixologist comes through. We can transmute bullshit into gold. Or at least, trace amounts of bullshit. If a bad motive makes us stumble into something good, we’ll take that too, though hopefully we’ll be a little chastened in the process.

That’s all for today. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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