While clearing some storm debris near the riverbank in my backyard last week, I encountered a bull snake. Instinctively, I froze in place for a few moments. Then I studied the snake because of its superficial resemblance to a rattlesnake. Then I noticed this snake’s lack of rattles. My physical sense of fight or flight faded away.
I think this was a normal reaction to an unexpected phenomenon. My regular aversion to snakes was aroused by the presence of the large creature. The incident caused me to ponder how we react to different circumstances.
On a very basic level, we can react to neutral events in very different ways. If a driver is heading towards the west near the time of sunset, she might feel annoyed because the Sun is causing interference with her vision and is distracting her from the task of driving the car. Meantime, someone strolling along a hiking trail may encounter the same sunset and be overcome with awe because he interprets the sight as beautiful and inspirational. These subjective reactions are obvious.
The feelings of delight and exhaltation felt by the players and fans after the victory in a sporting event are counterbalanced by the unhappiness and disappointment experienced by the players and fans of the losing team. The same dichotomy can be found elsewhere, such as in business or politics.
The victors of a political question may feel delight in the outcome of an election or court decision and not notice the disappointment of people hoping for a different result. Meantime, the losers might harbor negative opinions and wish to harm or take revenge upon the victors of the political event. In most instances, the reactions of the winners and the losers are self-centered and can have negative consequences.
The self-centered glee we might feel when we win, can rebound back at us in due course. The same rebound effect will also happen if we’re on the losing side and wish harm upon our opponents. Either way, we’re striving for personal satisfaction that causes others to suffer. This is Schadenfruede in its most basic form. That is, pleasure gained from the misfortune of others. Certainly, this is not a constructive or compassionate form of pleasure. This is only superficially satisfying.
There are also emotional reactions resulting from our attachments to wealth or personal advantages. Newscasts are filled with reports of very wealthy individuals who are so attached to their bank accounts and investments, that they constantly grasp at more and more. They hunger to own everything and everyone possible. The possession of money and property is translated into the slaking of their thirst for power and control. The wealthy person may be ignorant of the basic needs of other people or she might enjoy a perverse pleasure when others suffer misfortune due to her actions.
Furthermore the reaction of attachment to pleasurable things, like vast sums of money, luxurious possessions, and even personal attractiveness will eventually rebound upon itself. What begins as a pleasant reaction to the circumstance of plenty, reverses automatically into the pain of worrying about diminishment of gain and loss of status.
Some of us humans may have enjoyed a degree of fame or celebrity or found pleasure in social popularity and acclaim. There are countless reports of such individuals becoming victims of drug abuse, or sexual exploitation. Sometimes they become perpetrators of harmful activities. They find out the hard way that physical pleasure, fame, and wealth are temporary circumstances.
On the other hand, we might think that the opposite circumstances are actually superior in the struggle to find lasting satisfaction. It may superficially appear that an impoverished person is someone who is building character and strength from the struggle to survive. Usually, all that poverty creates is the desire to become wealthy. If a person has few or no beautiful possessions, he will naturally have daydreams of a large home, fine cars, and stylish clothing. If he is socially obscure or unpopular, the person will react with desires for fame and popularity.
Clearly, the circumstances of our lives are not the be all and end all of how we interpret living. It is our reactions to these circumstances that make or break us. Neither having all the wealth in the World nor suffering through dire poverty are the solutions to satisfaction.
Circumstances of wealth and poverty are supreme distractions along the path of life. They might be the backdrop to our lives, but they need not define us.
Detachment and observation of our reactions to circumstances will help us guide ourselves to more satisfactory living. Honest examination of our desire for wealth will help us find equilibrium between too much wealth and too little wealth we need in order to thrive. The same attitude works insofar as our need to be recognized for our existance and efforts. We can find the balance between reactions of arrogant boastfulness and meek submissiviness.
Usually, we will discover that satisfaction does not come from trying to convert other people to conform to our ideals. If we’re really honest, we discover that satisfaction comes from changing our reactions to circumstances we find ourselves in.
We understand that getting other people to cherish us is a self-defeating proposition. If we try to impress other people, we notice that others will only resent us. The best we can hope for, is that they’ll kiss up to us.
On the other hand, we might look at the circumstances encountered by other people. We might think that putting others down will make them feel better about themselves or somehow cause them to change their lives. We don’t really understand their circumstances but we react towards other people’s circumstances in ways that we believe are best for them. We want to impose our own beliefs onto everyone else.
At our worst, we judge their lives in order to feel superior to them. This is a sure-fire way to cause distress and conflict.
A more constructive and helpful reaction to superficially pleasant or unpleasant circumstances is to view situations as learning opportunities. We can assess our own reactions and sympathize or see the reactions of others from a fresh viewpoint.
We may discover the truth, that we may not be able to change the circumstances, but we can change our reactions. Doing so will bring us more satisfactory moments.