This is a true story about a man named Elliot. Elliot was a brilliant high powered executive with influence, wealth, and status. He had a beautiful family, and options in life. He had achieved the “American Dream.”
Tragically, Elliot found out he had a small tumor on his cortex near his brain’s frontal lobe, requiring him to undergo surgery. After the surgery, everything seemed fine. Slowly though, it became obvious that something was very different about Elliot.
Although his IQ stayed the same, he was incapable of decision. Not just big decisions, but little decisions. He would spend an inordinate amount of time on decisions like choosing a blue or black pen. If he was going out to lunch, he carefully considered each restaurant’s menu, seating and lighting, and then drove to each place to see how busy it was. Still, he couldn’t decide.
Elliot’s ability to process emotion was irrevocably damaged because of this surgery. That section of the brain no longer functioned. He was left solely with his logic. He became the ultimate rational man. For more behind the science of this, click here.
If Elliot couldn’t choose a pen color, it shouldn’t be surprising to find out his life fell apart. He lost his job, his new businesses failed, he was screwed over by a con man, and eventually his wife left him. He even moved back with his parents.
Shouldn’t you be able to make better decisions without pesky emotions getting in the way? I thought so growing up. For centuries, western culture has held a deeply rooted view of “rational man.” Most of us inherit this worldview believing the more rational we are, the better we will do in life. It’s actually a bit more complicated.
Back to Elliot. Given this reasoning, Elliot should have excelled MORE as an executive, right? He could look at the data and get the answer. Science. Boom. However, at the same time, if he can’t choose a pen color, we understand why he struggled. This is an example of a faulty worldview slamming up into reality. Tragically, the faulty worldview usually wins. We either ignore reality, or rationalize it away. It’s too painful to unwind a worldview. It affects too many areas of our life.
Elliot’s story was originally told by a famous neurosurgeon, Antonio Damasio, author of Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. This contradiction feels strange, because our worldview of rational man is coming under question in a rational way.
Descartes famously stated:
Actually, Hume was closer to the truth when he stated,
Reason is a slave to the passions.
Right now, you are likely thinking, no way, I’m logical. But are you? It’s highly likely that the products we buy are causing high cancer rates in our communities. Yet we will buy those same harmful products for more money, just because they have pink ribbon on them. Ironic. Even the most rational person is driven by emotions. For the highly rational, the emotion is usually fear.
A failure to understand and allow yourself to feel emotions can manifest itself in stress, anxiety, depression, hyper practicality, indecisiveness, and feeling trapped or stuck.
I’ve always struggled with making decisions. I shouldn’t have struggled, because I grew up a Christian and believed that God would guide my path. Nevertheless, from an early age I adopted the belief that I could think my way through life. This often resulted in a classic paralysis by analysis experience much like Elliot. But, this isn’t about Christianity. My point is only that our minds can trap us in lifelong inconsistencies even while we are reading daily words that clearly say otherwise.
About two years ago, I was fed up. I swallowed my pride and went to counseling the for the first time in my life because I was depressed and riddled with anxiety. Looking back at my thinking, those were natural responses. Even healthy responses. However, the anxiety was just brutal. My company was closing down, I had no idea what to do in life, I was single in my 30’s and that wasn’t the plan, and I could go on. Because I measured everything to value my success, I felt shame when I was losing the measuring game.
The counselor was brilliant. Just brilliant. Let’s call him Jerry. Jerry had to get to know me over time, because I wasn’t exactly thrilled to share my “feelings.” Each time I saw Jerry, he would ask, “how do you feel?” and later, “what do you want?” I hated these questions. I couldn’t answer. “I’m feeling…” Awkward silence. “I’m feeling…” Awkward silence. He would say, “Say it. It’s fine.” Avoiding eye contact at all costs, I eventually mumbled, “I’m feeling…numb.”
Numb was the first thing I said, because it was vague enough and I had to say something, it was getting really awkward. Each week, he would ask two questions:
What are you feeling?
What do you want?
With these few words, he pierced Descartes worldview knowing it was the path forward.
Jerry would not let me say what I should want, or what I thought was the best thing to want. Rather, he forced me to say what I wanted at a deep intrinsic level. That was the beginning of anxiety loosening its grip in my life.
If you remember one thing from this, remember,
Faith in rationalism is often insidiously rooted in fear.
Look around at the most rational people around you. They can pick things to pieces, but they rarely put anything together especially if the outcome isn’t guaran-damn-teed. They control, because they are afraid.
In my last counseling session, I finally admitted out loud, “I’m not moving forward, because I am afraid.” I can complain about things all I want, but really, I’m afraid I’m not smart enough or enough in general to guarantee I won’t fail. I never feel prepared for things like marriage, family…I need to save a little more money, I need to get my career settled, the list is endless.
I can know investments. I can know accounting, finance, economics, marketing, risk analysis, operations, all of it. I can make the choice and wait, knowing I am right enough of the time to come out ahead. If not, I can bail. It’s comfortable to gravitate toward the knowable, but that’s not where the best in life resides.
To flourish in life, you have to feel. You have know what you want and know if it’s good. You have to step into uncertainty. It’s terrifying.
It’s likely the rational man who has refused to feel and who has lived someone else’s life who likely has the midlife crisis. The “rational man” is often the cynical, angry, and bitter man, the man who picks things apart instead of building. I don’t mind sharing this, because as I share it, fear loses its power. I also know I am not alone in this and people need to hear this message.
It’s a tough process to undue a worldview. Our minds will jump through hoops to justify old thinking even if it is wrong. Undoing a worldview, even a wrong one, is like a mini-death. Yet it has to be done.
We all need to navigate the balance between rationalism and emotion and as we do, understand that logic follows emotion. If you are charting your path solely through life using “pure logic,” you likely aren’t being logical. However, I also know that emotions are tricky. They are up and down, and all over the place. They can lead us towards unsavory things like greed, fear, and envy. So then what? Luckily there is a third player. Intuition. Intuition is why the question isn’t merely, “what do you want?” It’s “what do you want, and is it good?”
Stayed tuned. More on that to come.
Read more on the science behind Elliot’s story here.