Struggling with Yourself

Emotions are an annoyingly vague type of thought. Something can make you angry in the morning and you may find yourself angry at something completely unrelated hours later which you would not otherwise have cared about. Emotions linger in your mind and cause many misunderstandings. Reasoning based on emotions can be dangerous to your mental health, but we all do it.

I used to listen to music quite a lot as a teenager. I had a quite significant collection of music. Music speaks directly to emotions and I found that I would play music that would reflect the mood I was in. What I noticed about this was that the effect of this was to amplify or manipulate moods and so make my general emotional state less stable and less predictable. In the battle to understand myself and what made me happy over the long term, I began to see music as noise rather than signal; part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

The world we live in is hard to understand and predict. Causes are in general very complex and there are many factors behind what we experience. To try and gain understanding we need to control what changes and see what happens when we make small or large deliberate changes to one thing at a time. Understanding ourselves and our emotions and their reasons is similarly complex. Misunderstandings create all kinds of problems.

One time, as I sat in my room I felt rather sad. So, I thought, I should cheer myself up, I should go and spend some time with my friends, so I did. After spending a couple of hours with them, which did cheer me up for a while, the background emotion of sadness resurfaced. It was then that I realised what it was that made me sad. It was not my lack of company, but my guilt feelings about putting off and failing to do the work I needed to do to succeed in my studies and that the cure I was taking was actually just part of the poison. It was a viscous cycle. I would fail to study what I knew I should do, this made me feel frustrated, guilty, even angry and then sad. Emotions are often also very mixed. Then I would try to fix my emotions with some action, but the action was actually causing the problem so it was a positive feedback loop, causing ever more failure to do the right thing.

I have observed that many mental problems come from such viscious cycles. They usually involve making some assertion about yourself, in my case I knew I was being lazy, so I concluded I was a bad person for being lazy. This assertion had evidence from my own behaviour. But that behaviour was, at least in part caused, by the feelings that came from accepting the idea that I was a lazy person. Breaking this cycle became possible when I realised this feedback mechanism was going on. I have seen the same cycle at work in other people who struggle with their inner demons – so to speak. The core of such patterns is the attitude of helplessness in the face of accepting a notion that treats part of yourself as essentially bad and evil. Basically, saying “I am bad”. The evidence of this then is your own behaviour, but that behaviour comes in some way from the emotions connected with the assertion “I am bad”.

Breaking such cycles, is not through asserting the opposite “I am good”, which can have its own feedbacks that can have their own feedback issues, but is about not letting emotions dictate our lives. Sometimes we need to do things we don’t feel like doing. This ability we have to put the benefit of our future selves above our current selves is perhaps the defining power that sets humans above all other creatures.

Humans have developed the ability to speak intelligently. This means talking about things that cannot be seen. This means in particular talking about the future and all the possibilities that brings. Once we can talk about the future we have the ability to weigh up different possibilities and choose based on reason and strategy. Sometimes that means that we should sacrifice something good now in exchange for something far better later. Sacrificing is counter intuitive. Much of our nature wants us to take advantage of the immediately available benefits. So it is that we have to reason about consequences and eventually the ultimate consequences of our actions.

This is where religion and morality comes in. The consequences of our actions continue after we die, so the big question is, how do we calculate what we should do given that we will die? Put another way, can we escape the bad consequences of our actions through death – or benefit from the good consequences? The answer we take to this changes everything in our calculations. If we think we can escape those consequences, then we can do any crime we can get away with and the only rule is “don’t get caught”. If we do not think we can escape the consequences, then we consider ourselves accountable after death for our actions. The most crucial part of morality is the acceptance that we are accountable beyond death for our actions, because without it literally “anything goes”. This is actively part of a rejection of all religion which itself is a religion of satanism. This treats all religion as a lie, denies all consequences for our actions after death and extols the satanic “virtues” and practices of getting away with harming others. An example of this is described by Ronald Bernard who went along with it until he was invited to take part in things his conscience really could not cope with

Once we recognise that living a life under the unjustified assertion that justice will not be done; that there are no consequences to our actions beyond our own deaths, then belief in the justice of God is an inevitable consequence. How God judges us is crucial for how we judge ourselves and each other. When we struggle to do what is right, there is a danger that we treat parts of human nature as inherently bad or evil. This particularly comes into play with ideas of “original sin”. In various key personalities in Christianity ideas got settled that built up dualism which asserted that this world is the domain of evil and only the spiritual realm was divine. These gnostic ideas lead to monastic behaviour similar to that found in some branches of Buddhism. In Islam, this dualism is not present. Everything is created by God in the way it was intended by God. If people sin it is because God chose to make that part of the nature of people. There are no Muslim monks. Self control is not about self denial in Islam. For example, it was said by the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that having sexual relations with your wife is a form of worship (service) of God. That is because you are fulfilling your desires in a way you know is allowed by God. All things we find in life have a good potential, we may not appreciate it but we should do.
That holds true for what is in our natures. We are encouraged in Islam, to reflect on all the good things that have happened to us and even when bad things happen, to see them as an opportunity to, if nothing else, demonstrate your commitment to doing what is right despite the circumstances.

God judges us according to what He has given us. If we have little we can still win lots of rewards from God if we use what we do have in a good way. God does not judge us by what he has given us. The things you cannot change about yourself, are not things to ever feel either good about yourself or bad. God will not judge you for them, so don’t judge yourself. For the things you can change about yourself, don’t get too proud about what you have done and don’t get too down about what you have not done. You may yet change those things.

Adopting these attitudes, a Muslim should never be saying of anyone that they are a bad person, only that their deeds are bad: “hate the sin not the sinner”. The sin is not an inherent part of the sinner’s nature. We are all free to change. The adulterer is not sinful because of their sexual desire, that desire was put there by God. They have just not restrained it so that it is fulfilled in a way which is not only free from sins but which brings the benefits that God has given it. The same goes for other desires.

The practice of fasting in Islam, restricting when and how much we eat and drink and have sex is a key part of training yourself. Not to stop fulfilling your desires, but to plan and control when and how those desires are fulfilled so that they are done in ways free from sin.

Complex causes, make self control hard to measure the results. Fasting sets simple goals to achieve, and helps in controlling yourself better to achieve them. Goals of self improvement can and should be set but due to the complexity of each goal’s causes, we have to focus on understanding all the factors of success by controlling as many as we can and letting only a few vary. It may take some significant time to distinguish the signal from the noise, but once we understand how they work quite well, we can form good habits that we do automatically and therefore take little or no effort once they are established. As we develop and establish good habits that cement our goals, we can pursue new goals, and discover new ways to control the factors behind their success or failure.

Evil exists in the absence of some good or other. Darkness is evil because of people getting deprived of the goodness of light that allows them to see their threats. Superstitions are evil because of people getting deceived and misdirected from the knowledge they could have which would reveal the real reasons for events. Envy is evil because it is people being deprived of having something good.

This is described in Surah 113, the last but one chapter in the Qur’an. The last chapter in the Qur’an focusses on seeking protection from the “evil of the withdrawing whisperer, who whispers into the hearts of men”. The main nature of this is to plant ideas in people which they take as their own. In particular these include ideas we have about ourselves, that deceive us into sins and keep us in them, when ultimately it is in our best interests to change ourselves.