Oh-oh, absorb this one for a little while and you might think we’ve gone all Karmic and pop-science-weird. Maybe Geoff; normally Mr. can’t-stop-quoting-psychology has fallen off the edge of reality. But panic not, there is plenty of legitimate behavioural science underpinning this idea and more than enough reasons why you ought to consider adopting the wisdom the quote can bestow upon you.
First, Brian Tracy, who he? Canadian public speaker and author of around 70 books of the self-help, ‘be the best you’ variety.
Next, what’s this quote all about? What does it mean, you’re a magnet? There’s a whole global industry about the effects of magnetism on the body, but it remains outside of proper medical practice and so is termed ‘pseudo-scientific’ and ‘alternative medicine’. All of that magnets-affect-health stuff is kind of interesting but it’s not what Brian is referring to. From a properly scientific perspective, given the options of similar magnetic poles repelling and opposite magnetic poles attracting, the idea of human beings attracting specific things through the power of magnetism is poppycock. Obviously, this whole magnetism thing is simply a metaphor for some other natural law. Yes indeed, and it’s a good one.
You don’t need to be on this planet for long before you notice that people seem to bring things upon themselves. Stuff keeps happening to them, and not just random stuff, but a certain kind of stuff. There’s a pattern or some notable repetition in their lives, they seem to be blessed with good luck or cursed with bad (people say of them that if they didn’t have any bad luck they’d have no luck at all), some people fall on their feet every time, others never seem to, things happen at the right time, just in time, things happen for a reason and in the end it’s all proof that Karma exists or that God works in mysterious ways.
Ask any psychologist and they will tell you; the human-race is superstitious by nature and prone to seeking (and finding) patterns, even where none exist. We like coincidences and we like making connections between things, sometimes discovering a genuine phenomenon but mostly just trying to make some home-spun theory force-fit because it would be nice if it was true. The idea that events are random and that we are alone, adrift and just muddling through because of some accident of nature is less comforting than believing there is a reason and purpose to our existence and best of all, that a loving, caring, paternal guardian watches over us. Thinking too much like a victim of abuse, we’d rather conclude that a bad harvest is because we’ve annoyed our God and must do better, than some particular combination of natural forces.
This is also why conspiracy theories have such traction. If some tragedy isn’t random, then why did it happen? Which government ordered it? In response to what? Did the North Koreans frame the Chinese by releasing Covid-19 because they were angry that Iranian gun-runners had murdered Princess Diana, who Kim Jong-Un had wanted to kidnap so that she could live with Elvis and Lord Lucan in his secret underground lair riding Shergar all day? And, by the way, Shergar was behind the assassination of JFK; you need to be careful which horse you don’t bet on, because it makes the horses very angry and horses love revenge.
What other bad events might this bad harvest be connected to? Who benefits by this disaster? Where is my oven-foil helmet? I must block out the government scanners before they realise I’m onto them.
You might note with some sadness that sinister motives have more traction that altruistic ones. This is because a larger part of society is dissatisfied and frustrated than content with their lot. If things aren’t as good as they should be then someone must be to blame (not me, obviously), whereas if things are going well, I did it, yay, go me!
Once a person detects what seems like a pattern in events, they search for the hidden meaning, in particular, the cause. If it rains, it’s because we did a rain dance or the gods are pleased with the sacrifice we made. If it doesn’t rain, either our rain dance was pants or the virgin, er… wasn’t. It’s all linked.
It’s 2020 and surely we’re way past that kind of mumbo-jumbo now aren’t we? No more rain-dances. Except when someone refuses to watch their football team take a penalty in case they jinx it, or has to wear their lucky socks at a job interview. This level of superstition is still very common. Whatever our thoughts on why a thing happened, we believe what we believe and it’s impolite to refuse someone else space to believe what they like, or to thrust our own beliefs upon them without a proper invitation. Ask around and modern, popular explanations typically revolve around fate, intelligent design or Karma. Consequently, it’s pointless trying to understand Bryan Tracey’s clever quotation without understanding how strongly connected it is with these deeply ingrained and highly emotional topics. I’ll be as delicate as I can. Here goes:
The idea of fate was given a sophisticated back-story by the Greeks who determined that there were three lady weaver-goddesses who prescribed a person’s entire life at the time of their birth. Their names were Clotho (the spinner), Lachesis (the allotter) and Atropos (the inflexible). Clotho spun the thread, Lachesis dispensed it, therefore ‘allowing’ the person to live their fate and Atropos decided when to cut it, ending the life with a snip. Don’t be surprised there were three, we human beings have an affinity with three.
The Roman equivalents were Nona, Decuma and Morta, while in Norse mythology they were Urd (what once was), Verandi (what is coming into being) and Skuld (what shall be). The Chinese had the four pillars of fate (not three you’ll notice and four is a more viable quantity for most areas of psychology, especially in psychometric models) but also believed in an invisible red cord of fate tied around the ankles of lovers. The Japanese believed there was a red cord tying a couple together between the male’s thumb and the female’s little finger, while the Koreans thought the chord tied the little fingers of both parties. Cute isn’t it?
And so it goes on. Depending where you found yourself born, you’d be indoctrinated into how fate operated in your culture. Don’t fight it, it’s all predetermined and meant to be.
If we invented fate now, we wouldn’t have weavers, we’d have programmers and their names would be Trillion, Persephone and Anakin. Trillion would write the program, Persephone would code in the options and Anakin would press ‘Game Over’ and laugh like someone with a mouth full of sherbet. Meanwhile, in one of my clients’ offices, there’s a plaque on the wall to their certified programmer and his name is… Galahad Longshadow! Isn’t that the coolest name ever? If your surname is Longshadow, you simply can’t call your son Dave or Bob. Young Master Longshadow was born to be Galahad of Java/Wordpress or whatever.
When it comes to intelligent design Christianity remains the biggest of the 4,200 religions on the planet. Just one-sixth of the population of the world considers themselves to be atheist or non-religious so most people believe in something ‘out there’ or ‘up there’. Christians and followers of Islam account for half the world’s population and Hindus account for another billion (13% of the total). Hinduism is the oldest of the main modern religions and Christianity is fairly recent by comparison. The term ‘modern’ excludes all the sun-worshipping which we know went on before people found something more organised to focus on. Intelligent design means people trust in a greater purpose, that there may or may not be free choice but that this is the sideshow to something better and more important. Generally it means that even our secret actions and thoughts are observed or known and that we might need to account or repent. So while Catholicism burdened its peoples with original sin, it also offered them confession and indulgences, where financial contributions could create a pathway to absolution. For others whose religions offered a more straight-forward concept of right and wrong, actions could be understood in the light that they were already written.
Karma exists within Hinduism and Buddhism as a central concept and instils in a person the understanding that their thoughts and deeds have consequences. Every word adds to the balance, every thought and every act, including the acts a person causes another to take, because those acts add to the overall tally of the person instigating the action, not just the one who was ordered to carry it out. Good thoughts and deeds turn into something beneficial later in life, bad ones have the opposite effect.
There is a popular legend which originated among American aboriginal tribes – most commonly attributed to Cherokee folklore – which goes like this:
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is evil, it is anger, envy, jealousy, doubt, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, forgiveness, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, ‘The one you feed.”
That’s pretty close to Karma although the metaphor can resonate with virtually any religion and parallels can no doubt be found wherever you’d like to look.
Keeping it simple, we have the fates at one end and Karma at the other. Is everything pre-ordained or do you have choice? If you have choice, does it matter, does it make a difference? If it makes a difference, do the consequences make themselves felt in this life, in the afterlife, or in your next reincarnation? Some of that I’m not qualified to answer and who can know for sure, but for the purposes of making sense of our modern lives, let’s take these next few things as very, very probable:
9 steps between personal responsibility and happiness
Earlier, I mentioned ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ and said that ‘have-nots’ are more likely to be conspiracy theorists. Now then, anyone can be a conspiracy theorist, but taking a helicopter view of all this philosophy presents you with this question:
“Is it me? Am I doing it, or is it the world doing it to me?”
Believing in fate (or equivalent belief systems) means you think it’s the world (your god or gods) doing it to you. Believing in a Karma (or equivalent belief systems) means you think it’s you making it happen. These are opposite ends of a continuum and you don’t have to be at an extreme end, you can sit somewhere on one side of the middle if you like. But… self-made people typically believe they did it all themselves, which is why they write books and announce that, “Anyone can do it, and here’s how; buy my book and make me a bit richer (and you a teeny bit poorer) and learn the secrets of my success and how you can make a million dollars in three months by…” sorry, my mind went blank at that point…
Studies suggest that successful people often have what some people would consider luck, but also pre-existing circumstances firmly on their side. It is quite often apparent that particular events have conspired in a special and rare way. Further, that decisions made long ago which cannot have been taken with a specific outcome in mind, led the person to a point where it all just clicked. That can feel caused, because it absolutely was caused, but the results are much grander than could have been predicted and for someone else, they may well have been much less so, and so often are. But only by degree, not normally by absolutes. Take many thousands of people who feel an affinity with making music and who at some point begin to feel, “Maybe this is what I should do with my life!” The vast majority fail, a few do okay, one or two nearly make it and a small handful achieve something spectacular. Those who utterly fail may think, “I was mistaken.” The few who do okay say, “I had fun but it wasn’t to be.” The tiny handful who so nearly make it think, “I was robbed, cheated out of my deserved success and lesser talents were granted underserved riches;” and the spectacular successes may say, “I always knew I’d make it. You just have to believe, want it enough and with a little bit of luck it will come to you.”
Equally importantly, we cannot (as far as we know) choose our own genetics. We don’t absolutely predetermine our predisposition to all of the potential conditions that can shape our lives or how they end. People don’t choose their birth defect or their disease, but they do choose how to relate to it and what they do with the time they have and the abilities (however comparatively limited) they possess.
People also invite ill-health by their habits which is why there’s so much information about our diets and in particular, sugar, salt, the various and confusing good and bad fats, E-numbers (surely E is a letter?) and apparently poisonous substances like Aspartame and Sodium-Benzoate which make big corporations richer and do us significant harm (allegedly, obviously!) And why should gazillion dollar industries worry about our health more than their own profits when we drink so much alcohol, when some folks still smoke in spite of everything they know about it and when rather a lot of people spend a lot of money so they can pump dangerous chemicals into their systems? Quite a few of us don’t even bother to exercise. Surely a little corn syrup, palm oil or salt is small fry compared the bigger unfolding picture of human health? Why stop smoking, I might get run over by a bus tomorrow?
But intuitively we know it’s up to us. It’s just that it’s hard to do all of it all the time, especially when you hear of a fit cyclist or marathon runner having a heart attack – statistically, it’s bound to happen to some, or of some sweet little kid with leukaemia, or the person who never smoked a single cigarette in their life dying of lung cancer while 60-a-day Myrtle keeps coughing her lungs up but is still going strong at 86? With 6.8 billion people on the planet, every possible outcome will occur somewhere to someone, for the most part, so it’s about working the odds. Do better things, have a better outcome. “You are a living magnet!”
So if self-made people feel inclined to take personal credit for their success, why do those whose life has been such a struggle drift towards fatalistic ideas? You’ve probably arrived before me. Who wants to have a hard time putting food on the table and simultaneously think it’s their own fault? Who wants to get passed over for promotion or turned down for a job and think, “That was me, I did that to myself!” And there are some dark corners to this realisation. Psychiatrists and therapists are familiar with victims of abuse escaping one abusive relationship only to find themselves in another one.
Abusers, those miserably slick people who harm others weaker than themselves are attuned to the unconscious micro-behaviours of victims. The bully who hits women with his fists isn’t attracted to a powerful, confident woman. He zones in on the meek and vulnerable girl in the corner, the one making herself look small and trying to hide in the group of girlfriends who have dragged her out to the pub now that she’s finally free of Earl. (Google ‘Goodbye Earl’ by the Dixie Chicks). She is precisely what this unpleasant bloke wants since his last missus escaped to a safe house some months ago and issued an injunction against him.
The police know muggers pick out their victims using similar criteria, so if you’re a confident cage-fighting champion-turned-vigilante, going out in search of some muggers to rip apart, the muggers will spot you and avoid you completely.
There’s a saying you’ll certainly have heard before, There but for the grace of God, go I, which being a Christian reference (but not one that appears anywhere in the bible) , attributes the passage of events and the distribution of favours, hardships and punishments to God’s will, as opposed to the more modern notion that the Christian God allows free will so that people are able to create their own fortunes. It fits better with the idea that God helps those who help themselves but if you thought that too was a Biblical quote, I have to disabuse you of the idea once again as it never was. A version of it is in the Quran though along the lines of, Trust in God but tie your camel, which suits us nicely here I think.
Remove the deity from There but for the grace of God go I and put the onus back onto the individual to make good decisions and take responsibility for their own actions you get something quite profound.
What Brian Tracy is saying with this superb eggcup of words amounts to this:
And let’s stop right there because that last one is very often not true and if we’re not careful, it’s life’s little and persistent inequities which can undermine our faith in what should be a simple and natural conclusion; that this causes that, that good causes good, that hard work causes success.
Sadly, we all know (or think we know) of instances where evil deeds have gone unpunished; where crime paid; where hard work simply made you a reliable beast-of-burden for a boss only too willing to take advantage of your good nature and reliability, meanwhile some slick-talking, lazy-arse interloper, walks in and steals your promotion; where decades of devotion by a loyal wife preceded her utter git of a husband sneaking off with some young bint he met in the queue at Gregg’s, or any number of real-life’s incalculable injustices.
Don’t give up, don’t give in. You can’t expect everything to work out the way you think it should and sometimes it takes a little longer. The idea that things will be alright in the end and if things aren’t alright, it isn’t the end applies here. Have a little patience. Eventually the criminal will either be caught, or his life will fall apart. Constant hard work will lead to greater success in the long run, but maybe not instantly and not when you especially wanted it. Being a loyal spouse may not keep a philander in check, but it’s a quality that will be appreciated by the right person when that time comes. Be kind to animals (and people because they are animals too), maintain your equipment, if you have a sword, don’t live by it, you’re better off living by a river, or a cycle path, or a field of poppies or sunflowers.
And to conclude with the words of the utterly brilliant and much missed Dave Allen;
“Goodnight, thank you and may your God go with you.”