One aspect of the philosophy of We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity is the rejection of free will. (See these blog posts: general, societal consequences, personal consequences.) There are many consequences of letting go of the belief in free will; these include the elimination of blame and guilt. If, in any situation, I couldn’t have done any differently there is nothing to feel guilty about. This is pretty easy to swallow. But another of the consequences seems a little harder. This is the flip side of guilt: if I couldn’t have done any differently, there is nothing to feel pride about. This seems cruel and unjust.
Many of us have worked hard in our lives, in school, at our profession, in our marriages, and it seems only just that we feel pride when we have achieved success.
The New Yorker recently published a review by Malcolm Gladwell of a new book, The Sports Gene, by David Epstein (you can watch his TED talk here), that is pertinent to the issue of pride:
In The Sports Gene there are countless…examples of all the ways that the greatest athletes are different from the rest of us. They respond more effectively to training. The shape of their bodies is optimized for certain kinds of athletic activities. They carry genes that put them far ahead of ordinary athletes.
For example, the book reveals that major league baseball players have superior eyesight compared to the average person. The ophthalmologist Louis Rosenbaum tested four hundred professional baseball players and found the average visual acuity was 20/13. When he looked at the Los Angeles Dodgers, half had 20/10 vision, and a small number fell below 20/9, “flirting with the theoretical limit of the human eye,” according to Epstein. Gladwell concludes
The ability to consistently hit a baseball thrown at speeds approaching a hundred miles an hour, with a baffling array of spins and curves, requires the kind of eyesight commonly found in only a tiny fraction of the general population.
The question here is: should those baseball players be proud of their ability?
Of course those baseball players worked hard to get where they are; the fact that they are members of a professional baseball team didn’t happen just because of their good eyesight. Epstein reveals that even the ambition to work hard is not shared evenly among the whole population. In the Sports Illustrated article he wrote (unfortunately Sports Illustrated has taken this article down since the book was published),
But researchers have found that even motivation to work out has an important genetic component. A 2006 Swedish study of more than 13,000 sets of fraternal and identical twins—fraternal twins share half their genes on average, while identical twins share all of them—found that the exercise tendencies of identical twins were twice as likely to be similar as those of fraternal twins.
Another 2006 study, of more than 37,000 pairs of adult fraternal and identical twins from six European countries and Australia, concluded that about half to three quarters of the variation in the amount of exercise people engaged in could be accounted for by their genetic makeup, while environmental factors, such as access to a gym, often had less influence. [my bold]
Wayne Gretzky famously said, “Maybe it wasn't talent the Lord gave me, maybe it was the passion.” But what if the two are inextricable? What if passion is a talent?
What if passion were a talent? Exactly. The passion that motivates an individual to devote his life to the physical training required of a professional sport, or to practice the piano eight hours a day, or to pursue a Ph.D. in particle physics is not “freely chosen” by the person. It is created through the interaction of that person’s physiological makeup and psychological programming. I know scientists whose field of study was clear at the age of seven: they had a fascination with bugs or stars in childhood that lasted all their lives. Novak Djokovic, the tennis star, began to hang around a tennis court at age six, and when he began playing that year the tennis pro said it was obvious he had extraordinary talent.
Of course this passion doesn’t have to be obvious as a child. One of the scientists involved in Curiosity, the latest Mars rover, didn’t become interested in astronomy until he was in his 20s. According to “The Martian Chroniclers” (The New Yorker again) Adam Steltzner, the leader of the team in charge of entry, descent, and landing, dropped out of college and, at age 21, was working as a musician. One night as he drove home from a gig he noticed the stars overhead and wanted to learn more.
A few weeks later, he went to the local community college to sign up for an astronomy class. Told that he had to take physics first, he reluctantly agreed, only to discover that he had a knack for it. More than a knack, really. “I just fucking dominated,” he told me. “There were tests where the average was thirty per cent and I would have a ninety-eight. I was the dude.”
Steltzner ended up with a Ph.D. and a job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But how many of us have looked up at the sky in wonder and been content with a trip to the planetarium, or taking a single course, or just cruising around the Internet looking at photos. We didn’t have the ability to understand physics, or the drive to keep learning and working that this man had. Should Steltzner feel pride at his accomplishment?
Another element that Epstein discovered was that not everyone responded to training equally.
Even after five months of training, some people in families that benefited little on average did not improve their aerobic capacity one iota, while others in families that generally showed marked improvement increased it up to 50%. Statistical analysis showed that about half of a person's ability to improve with training was determined by his or her parents. The amount any person improved in the study had nothing to do with how good he was to begin with—his "baseline aerobic capacity"—but about half of that baseline, too, was attributable to family inheritance.
So for some of us, even if we have the passion to undertake a sport, our physiology might mean we are incapable of improving. So for those born with the capacity for improvement, should they feel pride at their increased aerobic capacity?
We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity says that instead of pride, we should feel gratitude. Gratitude for our inbuilt passions, talents, drives, and abilities. Gratitude for what those gifts allow us to accomplish in life.
Pride means we are claiming a control over life that we do not have. It reminds me of the folk saying “‘My, look at the dust we raise,’ said the ants on the chariot wheel.”
Everything is interconnected. Say I made an apple pie that I was proud of. Did I make the apples that taste so good? Did I grow the wheat, create the cows that produced the butter? Carl Sagan once said that in order to truly make an apple pie from scratch one would have to first bring the universe into being.
Because of the linkage of guilt and pride there is a benefit to letting go of pride:
You don’t have to take the blame if you don't take the credit.