The "Undue Influences" in Our Lives

What are the “undue influences” in our lives? What determines our behavior? In our day-to-day existence, are we exercising our free will?

We often go through life on autopilot. Can you blame us? We’re overtired, overworked, and hyper-stressed much of the time. Our families want our attention and our jobs want us to see more customers, sell more products, and get higher “customer satisfaction ratings”—no matter what. Time has become a commodity.

It can be overwhelming, but we slog through. Often we see only half of what’s in front of us, focused on that distant moment when we’ll have free time to do what we really want to do with our family and friends, and just maybe, we’ll find a sacred few seconds to give to ourselves. We rely on our tried and true habits which have gotten us this far, and we don’t register much unless it is severely out of the ordinary. Unless the “red alert” goes off. Like, if the driver next to us strays into our lane, or if we get an exorbitant bill for something we didn't order. Most of the time, we do our best to sail on through, as the days and the weeks and the months of our passage tick by. 

Most of the time, we tiptoe through our lives, hoping to make it safely to death.  

Why do we exist this way? Is this really the legacy we want to leave?

It does satisfy a lot of parameters. It’s secure, relatively risk-free, and with a little luck and a good head for saving, we can pay the mortgage and send our kids to good colleges. Maybe take a few trips along the way, and when inclined, party down and show off designer clothes and fashions. That way, we will fit in with the “in crowd.” That way, we will belong.

Besides, it’s all in keeping with what we’re told we ought to want, who we ought to be, what we ought to strive for, and where we ought to end up. And, of course, there is the other side: what we’ve been told we cannot have, what we should not want, and where we must not go. It’s all part of “survival mode.” We rarely think about the sources of our thoughts or our dreams, or whether they are even our own. We absolutely do not evaluate if they are serving us.

But so much of our beliefs have been hijacked. First, by our families who raised us, who inadvertently (or intentionally) instilled in us the blueprint for what was, in their opinion, a “worthy” life. They meant well.

Our minds have also been hijacked by the press and social media, for less noble reasons. They capitalize on our need to agree with the factions they tempt us with, hoping we will spend our money on their website. And the powers in government are also manipulating us for their own political agenda, and we barely notice any of it. 

The amount of information pouring onto the internet is so overwhelming, we just don’t have time to sort through it all—if we even acknowledge it. We often adopt our friends’ opinions, or our family’s, or our organizations’ because it’s just too cumbersome to evaluate each headline, each advertisement, every accepted “norm” about what a successful life looks like. We live in a world that provokes a severe attention deficit disorder. A world of unremitting distractions and information overload.

Add to that the lies that are reported as truth. Few people remember the Fairness Doctrine anymore. It was introduced in 1949 by the United States Federal Communications Commission, and required that in order for a journalist to hold a broadcast license, they were obligated to present “controversial issues of public importance in a manner that fairly reflected the differing viewpoints.” (Say, what?) When I was a kid, newspapers and television stations always presented both sides of a story, lending the news a sort of “Just the facts ma’am” character—for those of you who remember Dragnet

In 1985, it was decided that this doctrine had a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech, and by 1987, it had been repealed completely. We are living with the results. Depending on which station you listen to or what rag you read, you will get news that presents a story in line with that organization’s opinion. It is no longer news. Half of the articles are written in the first person, and do not even try to disguise their prejudicial nature. 

Even your Twitter or Facebook accounts will selectively serve up to you info bites that it has determined you will be most receptive to. And let’s not even talk about Google. Almost all our information is given to us according to an algorithm based on personal data that has been gathered about each one of us when we weren’t looking.

No, I’m not advocating we cower under fear of conspiracy theories. I am proposing that we take back our intellectual power and systematically unpack the material we are fed so we can decide for ourselves what resonates with us versus what is merely being accepted by habit or social standards. And I am suggesting we do this with the plans we make, the products we buy, and the platforms we support. Do we have the time or energy to do that while juggling everything else in our crazy, busy lives? Probably not. But for the things we have not fully evaluated, we can reserve judgment

Why is this important? Getting us in the habit of questioning where our values are coming from and in what direction we are headed, invites us to search within to see if we really agree with these principles, and then we can ponder why we are on the path we are on. Only then can we make conscious changes where appropriate. 

What a project. Who has time? Does it matter that much?

Yes, it matters. Our life is like a movie. The movie of us. We each get one movie; no more, no less. We should each be the star of our own movie. Yet, too often, we end up playing a supporting role.

That is not to say we should be conceited, arrogant, or obnoxious about our stardom. But we should each be playing the main character in our own flick. Otherwise we risk looking back with regrets. Time cannot be replaced. 

I'd like to suggest that you spend just a few moments every single day to stop and breathe the air. If you can get to the shore, stand quietly on the sand and appreciate the roar of the ocean, the vastness of the sea. In your own neighborhood, gaze at a flower newly bloomed. A chipmunk running in the garden. Genuinely connect with your dog when you’re out walking, and ignore your cell phone for a few minutes. This is where to find the answers to the important questions.

These important questions are not which high-priced wedding venue to choose or which top-ranked college is the best choice for our kids. The important questions are: what legacy are we leaving and what will our eulogy reflect about is. That should be a conscious decision.

So, what do we think about as we journey through our lives? Or… do we think at all? Are we stuck on an autopilot that has been programmed by some impersonal process that does not care at all about us as individuals? 

In Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein said “In the absence of clearly defined goals we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia, until we ultimately become enslaved by it.” Have we examined and defined our goals? Or are we slaves to the habits our society has implanted in us to feed the financial needs of faceless entities?

What do you want from your life?

--Debra Blaine, MD, author of Undue Influences: a frighteningly plausible political thriller.


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