Are we stuck in our own personal traps?
[Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in PSYCHO, (1960) Universal Pictures]
Perhaps my favourite scene in the Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho, is when Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is honouring his guest with milk and sandwiches and they are discussing in an indirect way their own social and psychological plight. Marion (Janet Leigh) mentions that she would like to escape to her own private island and Norman says:-
"People never run away from anything...
...I think we're all in our private traps, clamped in them,
and none of us can ever get out, we scratch and claw but only at the air,
only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge and inch..."
[excerpt: Alfred Hitchcock's 'PSYCHO' Universal Pictures 1960]
For those with any recurring personal problems, these words strike a chord. And I have to admit, I have felt like Norman (on this issue) many times myself (I think some opponents might seek ground against me with that admission). Yes, we appear to have choice, as we can walk right or left as we choose, but freedom, development and growth are not as simple as trying to turn right or left.
We may all find ourselves with particular behaviours we don't seem to be able to shake off, even though we know they are bad for us and push us further into the darkness. We all may find ourselves in circumstances, whether social, political, economic or otherwise, that we don't seem to be able to escape from, no matter what strategies we adopt. Many people, after a range of efforts and journeys that appear to always end up in the same place, give up.
When we perceive that we are are going to be forever shackled we can end up adopting a very negative mindset and turn to the escapism of drugs, alcohol, serial and shallow relationships, social exploitation, self harm, violence, rage, depression and even suicide. Or someone clutches at unlikely solutions like gambling or jumps into even more desperate measures in the hope of escape, even if these measures end up in even more damage to the self, family or community.
So why is that we can't escape our private traps?
- We have a character partly innate that causes us to think and act in certain ways. We are creatures of habit.
- Our character is also partly shaped by our environment and if we don't change that environment or character we can end up with the same inward mechanisms that make us fall down the same holes.
- We have emotions and emotions move our thoughts and actions and give us repeated feelings. This inward cycle can make us feel we are anchored to a self we want to separate from.
- The human mind is limited. Our vision is limited by that intellect.
- A human has instincts which are hard wired into the physiology and psyche, they often pull us in the opposite direction to our intellect and best destination.
- The socio-political system around us is shaped in a certain way so that results get repeated. That system is underpinned with beliefs, ideology, culture and laws all which conspire against the human development and nature so that society seems like one big immovable prison.
- We have social, economic, community and political relationships that we feel narrow our vision, demotivate us and restrain our movement and growth.
- Our knowledge is limited, and our choices and thus actions, objectives and 'escape routes' are limited by that ignorance. If you can't see the doors its difficult to open them, even more so if you don't know they exist.
- It is easier to give up and lie down than make an effort to move all the obstacles we encounter.
- Because of the above and other factors, history repeats itself, when we know that we think that the world and our own personal world can not change. Things keep happening the same way because the beliefs, thought processes and interactions are the same. Cause and effect applies.
- The people who make a dramatic change appear to be few and it can be that we never meet such people. This means we meet many people who don't change and don't want to change. Such people may not inspire us to action, especially if we are thinking negatively.
- We can try something several times and end up not succeeding, even when it seems we took the correct steps. Whereas someone else may seem to be less capable and not take the correct steps yet still be successful. We may tell ourselves at that point that we are not meant to succeed.
Many people may not reach a higher purpose and standard of behaviour, so this may give the impression that no-one does and humans are generally not up to it. But this does not mean its not possible because most don't achieve it, most are perhaps not even focussed on trying.
How do we know we can escape our private traps?
- Harry Houdini [d.1926] (the escapologist) escaped many traps and people do escape from real prisons.
- There are many people who are in even worse circumstances than ourselves who make an effort, make some decisions and do end up in more favourable positions. Therefore it is not impossible.
- Humanity regularly develops in the material/technological sense. The universe contains many forces and resources that can be exploited for change, and human civilizations are continuous proof of that.
- Although we have inward traits that we were perhaps born with and a character developed over years, this does not mean these things cannot be be changed and their harmful effects limited. If we train ourselves to pause and think more rather than to react instinctively and emotionally we can stop a preventable crash from happening.
- It may seem easier in the short term to give up on problems rather than making the effort needed it is not a sound calculation to make. We get out what we put in. It makes more sense to work in the short term for an ultimate good end.
- We are undoubtedly creatures of habit but we are also creatures of change. We can make a beneficial change and then turn that new change into a habit. An established norm was originated at some point.
- We have indeed already experienced change and development many times in our own lives, its just that we are ungrateful and forgetful. Did we not see after being blind? Did we not grow after being small? Did we not learn to speak, read and write after being illiterate? Did we not become clothed after being naked? Was our pain not removed? Did our illness not pass? Did we not feel pleasure after pain? Did we not enjoy food after being hungry? Water after thirst? Joy after sorrow? This all shows us that our perception and direction of thought about stagnation and development is key to unlocking the doors of positivity and progress.
- We interpret the existence of all difficulty and negative opposites as a bad thing. Yet this again, is from our own lack of deep thought and knowledge. Do we not recognize and appreciate attributes by the existence of their opposites? Are these negative attributes not a benefit in many ways? Does not the spectrum of negative and positive attributes allow us to achieve balance? Do we not benefit from such tests around us so that we grow by our trials and see other people for who they are?
- Although our instincts are a strong pull on us, they do not compel us into particular acts. Rather there are a range of ways in which an instinct can be fulfilled so that we are regulated. We do not have to be a wild howling wolf nor a caged bear.
- Our sense of failure or being trapped is perceived by the contrasting spectacle of success, that we are are aware of through a possible dream or through witnessing others. This means it is clearly obtainable in theory, as its concept exists and its reality exists. If it can exist in others then we are human too with similar capabilities and opportunities.
- We live in an age of much depression and frustration yet it is also a time characterised by spirituality, positive thinking, counselling, self-help etc. These positive things can be found in many places and from various sources. When we we study them, much of what they offer makes sense and puts things in perspective so that we know immediately that if we were to implement the related advice we would likely achieve some change or even major change. We also know that many people working or immersed in these fields have transformed themselves or assisted people in transforming their outlook and their direction. Therefore, there is no inevitability about being trapped.
- Concerning constricting and suffocating relationships with individuals, groups, organizations and societies, then we do not have to be ensnared by these. We can realign these relationships, renegotiate them or sever those that have become too toxic. We often fear what is different and we may have become mind controlled into thinking we are dependent on such associations, but this is likely to be false and sometimes we need to break on through to another reality in the interests of survival and then assess the next move.
- We may try something many times and not succeed, but this does not mean no progress or change has been made. Efforts do bring about changes in our inward reality and in the world around us that perhaps we don't see. Also we can benefit from these efforts for later expeditions. Trying something and not hitting the point we intended to does not mean no progress was made at all, we need to build on what was gained. It is not only this though, even if no progress is made in terms of material results, it doesn't mean the next time we wont succeed. Some of the most 'successful' people in the world knocked on a door many times, maybe even hundreds of times until a door was finally opened for them. It can be this patience and perseverance that is the difference between success and failure.
- Another point to consider when looking at the success that seems to come easily to others is that, firstly, their scale of success maybe different and that they may want to achieve other things that they are struggling in. Secondly, they may have all sorts of problems and obstacles that we don't have and they may look at us with equal envy. Even if we did find ourselves in their relative ease, we may not like it when we get there. Success can be a very relative thing.
- We can change our mentality and inward state by thinking about different things and in different ways. This inevitably leads to different emotions and actions which translate into different outcomes.
- The traps we often find ourselves in are due to our own ignorance, the cure for that is to seek more beneficial knowledge to increase the options and awareness of possibilities.
- Sometimes the trap we are in is only imaginary. This is cured by cutting through self made delusions and seeing the reality as it is. The reality can elude us when we continually twist it, add to it and take from it.
- Traps can be the result of societal conditioning. This process can be broken by independent thought and questioning the foundations and systems that surround us. People seek refuge and anonymity in conformity but this can mean stagnation and disaster if the crowd are wrong. We should not walk in the same direction as everyone else for the sake of it nor on the assumption that they must all know where they are going and why.
The Islamic culture has a very detailed and deep answer or answers to this question of the ability to escape one's difficulties. It is of course delving into the subject of predestination, fate and free will. This question in fact resulted in various sects arising, due to their position on fate and choice. There was the Qadriyyah who considered that we have free will and act as we please. There were the Jabariyyah, who considered we were compelled in our actions by God and could not escape who we are going to be and that there is only the illusion of free will.
There are of course many views between these views and similar existed in previous nations and peoples whether Christians, Greeks etc. The Qadriyyah had their arguments from reason to support their position and could draw and many verses of the Qura'n and statements of the Prophet Muhammad (saw). e.g.
Everything has been subjected to our use, this is clearly indicating the role of our choice and creativity
"And He has subjected to you, as from Him,
all that is in the heavens and on earth:
Behold, in that are Signs indeed for those who reflect."
(QURA'N al Jaathiyah [The Kneeling] 45:13)
Similarly, the the role of man's choice in his own belief and acts has been indicated in hundreds of verses e.g.
“Verily We have shown him the way,
whether he be grateful or ungrateful”
(QURA'N al Insaan [Mankind] 76:3)
“...but whoever changes from belief to disbelief,
Has strayed without doubt from the even way.”
(QURA'N al Baqarah [The Cow] 2:108)
“Means of insight have now come unto you
from your Sustainer [through this divine writ].
Whoever, therefore, chooses to see,
does so for his own good;
and whoever chooses to remain blind,
does so to his own harm.
And [say unto the blind of heart]: "I am not your keeper."
(QURA'N al Ana'm [Cattle] 6:104)
“SAY [O Prophet]: 'O mankind!
The truth from your Sustainer has now come unto you.
Whoever, therefore, chooses to follow the right path,
follows it but for his own good;
and whoever chooses to go astray,
goes but astray to his own hurt.
And I am not responsible for your conduct.'"
(QURA'N Yoonus [Jonah] 10:108)
The Jabariyyah, who would be more aligned with Norman Bates' philosophy, also had their arguments from reason and also drew on many verses of the Qura'n and statements of the Prophet (saw). e.g.
“Allah has created you and what you do.”
(QURA'N as Saffaat [The Ranks] 37.96)
“But you cannot will unless God Wills...”
(QURA'N al Insaan [Mankind] 76:30)
“But they will not remember unless God Wills...”
(QURA'N al Mudathir [The Enwrapped] 74:56)
“If it had been God's Will,
they would not have associated (partners with God)...”
(QURA'N al Ana'm [Cattle] 6:107)
“...they are not the ones to believe unless it be God's Will...”
(QURA'N al Ana'm [Cattle] 6:111)
and the Prophet Muhammad (saw) was reported to have said on the authority of Abu Moosa al Asha'ree,
“There is no movement and no power except by God.”
The Jabariyyah could also draw on the fact that God has a Plan [makr] and Decision [Qada'] which are never frustrated, e.g.:-
"Even so: Allah creates what He Wills.
When He has decreed a matter,
He but says to it, 'Be,' and it is!”
(QURA'N aali I'mraan [The Family of I'mraan] 3:47)
“...Those before them did (also) devise plots;
but in all things the overall planning is for God...”
(QURA'N ar Ra'd [Thunder] 13:42)
“…For Allah will surely accomplish his purpose.
Verily, for all things has Allah appointed a due proportion.”
(QURA'N at Talaq [Divorce] 65:3)
“…But forgive and overlook,
Till Allah accomplish His Purpose;
for Allah has power over all things.”
(QURA'N al Baqarah [The Cow] 2:109)
“And the commandment of Allah is always executed.”
(QURA'N an Nisaa’ [Women] 4:47)
“...For, God always prevails in whatever be His purpose,
but most people know it not.
(QURA'N Yoosuf [Joseph] 12:21)
[NOTE: There are an enormous amount of verses and ahadeeth on this subject, with many explicit and subtle points derived from them. This subject needs books rather than brief articles.]
These two sects are to opposite ends of the spectrum. But they both have some proof for what they say. However, the truth is that we have a limited free will and that the Divine Will, Plan and Divinely created properties of creation can mean that certain things will be, no matter what someone else wants and no matter what they try.
I have actually written about this topic from an Islamic angle in much depth before and I have many Islamic books which delve into this subject with great detail and there are many verses of the Qura'n, hundreds if not thousands that relate to this subject and the same can be said to the statements of the Prophet (saw). So I am not going to delve into any depth here about it, as it is indeed a book I probably need to write at a later date.
We can of course never understand this topic fully, because it goes beyond our human understanding and knowledge and delves into the very essence of who we are, how the universe works and how the Divine Acts and Attributes are. These are topics we have been given a limited understanding of. However, the Islamic teachings provides much detail on it, whereby we can reach a sure view and belief on it that serves our purposes here on this earth. The result is that we don't fall into the delusion that we are independent and all capable, such is the mantra of many supposedly 'self help gurus', 'positive thinking' enthusiasts and 'new agers', while also not falling into the negativity of defeatism, absolute fatalism, total surrender to circumstances and problems and thus stagnation.
The reality is that God willed us to have choice, but as we said before a limited choice. The Quran (also the Bible) emphasizes individual responsibility and accountability. Good actions are blessed and rewarded, bad actions are cursed and punished. Our choices are limited by our knowledge, circumstances, resources, time, place, emotions, physiology and senses, even a materialist must admit this. We are also limited by the Divine Actions, forces of nature and physics that are known and seen and those forces which are unseen. This is not the whole picture though, as the monotheistic Islamic theology reveals many elements whose mechanisms have quite an impact on where we end up depending on our relationship with these elements. Our actions and inward state have a relationship with the Divine Actions and Attributes so that we can be subject to guidance and misguidance. There are inward states we can adopt and actions we can perform which alter what happen to us, so that the opportunity to be guided and benefited is always available.
God created everything with inherent nature, properties and purpose and we can not alter that nature. e.g:-
“...it is He who created all things,
and ordered them in due proportions.”
(QURA'N al Furqaan [The Criterion] 25:2)
And thus the necessary consequences of that Divinely bestowed can not be escaped. For instance we were born to eventually die:-
“Wheresoever you may be,
death will overtake you,
even if you were in lofty towers....”
(QURA'N an Nisaa' [Women] 4:78)
“We have [indeed] decreed that death shall be [ever-present] among you:
and there is nothing to prevent Us.”
(QURA'N al Waaqi'a [The Event] 56:60)
“Who has created death and life in order to test you which is best in action...”
(QURA'N al Mulk [The Dominion] 67:2)
“Say: ‘The death from which you flee will truly overtake you.”
(QURA'N al Jumu’ah [The Congregation] 62:8)
“And We did not grant to any human before you immortality...”
(QURA'N al Anbiyaa' [The Prophets] 21:34)
“When their term is reached, not an hour can they cause delay,
nor (an hour) can they advance (it in anticipation).”
(QURA'N al A’raaf [The Heights] 7:34)
This though does not mean that we have no choice in the utilization of these properties. We are restricted by the limits and nature of our bodies, minds and the environment but we have choices how we apply what is within those limits.
The Qura'n is clear that the reality of man on earth is not simply ease and enjoyment, rather life has difficulties by its nature:-
“Verily We created man in toil and struggle”
(QURA'N al Balad [The City] 90:4)
But this life was not meant to be miserable either and neither was the revelation sent to make us miserable:-
“We have not sent down the Qura'n upon you to cause you distress.”
(QURA'N Ta-Ha 20:2)
Rather, life is a continuous test of our inward and outward state in prosperity and adversity, in difficulty and ease, the Qura'n says:-
“...and We test you by evil and by good by way of a trial...”
(QURA'N al Anbiyaa' [The Prophets] 21:35)
The reality is that the dual drive was given to us to do good both by the signs around us and by the motivations and warnings of the divine texts. We can choose our actions, inward and outward and we will ultimately see the fruits of our actions, good or bad.
“To all are degrees according to their deeds:
for your Lord is not unmindful of anything that they do.”
(QURA'N al Ana'm [Cattle] 6:132)
We have will and choice but the results of our choices, the results we hope for, may not come about. But the will of God, is never frustrated. So it makes sense to align ourselves with the Divine Will as much as we can so as not to be frustrated.
“...Nor is Allah to be frustrated (incapable) by anything at all,
in the heavens or on earth:
for He is All-Knowing, All-Powerful.”
(QURA'N al Faatir [The Originator] 35:44)
The Creator who is Just, did not compel us to do wrong, neither to ourselves or others. If we choose wrong and thereby suffer from it, we will only have ourselves to blame.
“Verily! Allah wrongs not mankind in aught,
but mankind wrong themselves.”
(QURA'N Yoonus [Jonah] 10:44)