Hamartia and the locus of control
Script: Richard Lewis
Music: Richard Lewis
Producer: Oliver Feldman
In this episode:
- Agency versus victimhood
- Inside the motivations of controllers
- Banish magical thinking
- Pwn your locus 🙂
Are you the agent of your own destiny or are you a Capricorn, damned by the cosmos at birth to be weighed down in all your best efforts by the constraining forces of Saturn?
Would life have turned out better if it hadn’t have been for that one event 20 years ago? Was that your error of judgement or were you the tragic victim of circumstances? If you could go back and make a different choice — would you?
Making choices isn’t easy. Should you step into the unknown or stay with the devil you know? If you’re not sure, then you’re in good company.
Hesitating before making a choice is a necessary part of rational self preservation. If only the grandees of Troy had reflected just a fraction longer before letting in that massive wooden horse.
So most people hesitate over important decisions. Many find even smaller decisions a bit tricky.
Perhaps you’re unhappy in your current job and you feel under-appreciated and underpaid. A lot of people feel that way. But should you stay with the crazy boss or risk a new job, where the boss might be even worse and you won’t know anyone and you might fail? Perhaps you’d be leaping from the frying pan into the fire!
Should you just shut your eyes, choose one and be damned?
Wrong decisions have consequences. The school right next-door has bad results. The better school is farther away, so your child would have to travel. Can you set your kid’s academic results against their safety? What if we make the wrong choice here?
I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to feel a little anxious just listing these. Do you ever wish Han Solo would just swoop out of the sky in the Millennium Falcon and solve everything for you?
A lot of people do. The idea of last-minute intervention from above was already a cliché in the classical era, when the Greeks were writing the first tragedies, including the story of Troy.
Classical tragedy rests on the notion of the fatal error, or the fatal flaw. Aristotle called this hamartia. Letting in that horse was a fatal error for the Trojans, since it contained a group of Greek soldiers who jumped out in the night and opened the city gates for their army, causing Troy to fall.
The concept of hamartia is that an otherwise powerful character’s tragic error — either an error of judgement or something outside their own agency like their genetic makeup, family history or temperament — contains within it the instruments of their demise.
From the moment the error is made, the protagonist’s fate is sealed and no more can be done.
By the way, when I say “agency” I’m using a term from the sciences that psychology uses to mean an person’s capacity to act in a given environment. When we can act and influence, we’re said to have agency. If we can self-reflect, self-organise and be proactive, then we have agency. If you think about it, an agent is someone who is given the capacity to act on our behalf.
Once the tragic error is committed, tragedy is the only outcome and cannot be avoided. For Achilles, famously, the fatal flaw was his weak heel and so his demise in battle was guaranteed at birth. For Oedipus, his hamartia was not knowing his own identity, a tragic flaw that caused him to marry his mother and kill his father. It has been a persistent trope in all later developments of tragedy and its derivative forms in literature.
In Shakespeare’s tragic play Othello, the powerful military commander Othello has one Achilles heel: his jealousy. This emotional blind spot allows the ruthless manipulator Iago to drive Othello to destroy Iago’s professional rival, Michael Cassio. Once the seed of doubt is planted by Iago, Othello’s own hamartia pushes events on inexorably to their terrible end.
The unstoppable nature of hamartia is what makes tragedy so … tragic. It’s like a slow-motion punch in the face that we see coming a mile off and yet we remain powerless to halt it. The French writer and film maker Jean Cocteau described hamartia as the infernal machine. In his play of the same name he wrote:
“Before you is a fully wound machine. Slowly its spring will unwind the entire span of a human life. It is one of the most perfect machines devised by the infernal gods for the mathematical annihilation of a mortal.”
In tragedy, the protagonists are defined such that they are no longer agents of their own destiny, but victims of their tragic flaw. Their end is set in stone by their own back story.
Deus ex machina
In this context, only divine intervention can halt the infernal machine and save our heroes.
The Greek playwrights used the sudden, last-minute intervention of a god from above so often that a theatrical term was coined: deus ex machina. It meant “god from the machine,” because the theatres had to build special machines to physically lower the God actor onto the stage using cables and pulleys.
Today we use it to describe any hackneyed plot device where a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved, with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. Some new agent.
As in a movie, when the heroes fall off a cliff and death is certain; then, suddenly, a flying robot appears to catch them, flown by some character from act one we’d all forgotten about. And who knew flying robots even existed?
As when the bills are piling up, your account is overdrawn and it looks like the flat-screen is going to be repossessed when suddenly your long-lost aunt rings you to tell you she’s won the lottery and she’s giving you £10 million and you can even quit your job and live in the Maldives. I mean, who knew she even had your number or played the lotto, right? It’s pure magic.
Sound familiar? It’s incredible how often we do this in our own thinking. We may even become so convinced of the certainty of last-minute magical intervention that we cease to act as agents in our own dramas.
After all, getting from one situation to another as the result of choices and action is hard. Making those choices is hard and the burden of constant decision-making can be paralysing and anxiety-inducing. If we do the wrong thing it can have wide-ranging aftershocks.
By contrast, living a life where you are freed from the anxiety of decision-making, living with freedom from the burden of choice, can bring a great deal of peace.
After all, never choosing means you never did the wrong thing, right? If the outcome is negative we can always say it’s the fault of whoever made the decision.
Sometimes we begin to feel that the burden of risk involved in choosing outweighs the risk that our delegated chooser will make the wrong choice for us. And so we subtly and slowly shift our ownership of control away from our own sphere of influence and towards The Other.
When finding answers is a burden, those who claim to have the solution seem very attractive. And when that fairy godmother does turn up. We are only too glad to delegate.
But it turns out there’s a rider. Turns out, magical intervention isn’t free.
Us and them
How often have you found yourself in conversation and one of you says: “Well they ought to do something about that.”
Who are they and when did you appoint them as your agent?
What is stopping you from doing something about it? Why do they have more agency than you?
Why do you give them the power?
Why are you waiting for them to intervene?
Modern psychology talks about something called locus of control. Locus is a word from mathematics. It basically means the point at which two lines intersect, the place where a thing is located.
So an individual who has a high internal locus of control tends to believes that control is exercised within: that you make your own outcomes. When something good happens, these individuals usually believe it’s because they made good choices and so they tend to believe they deserve the good outcome.
And when something bad happens: well, they won’t do things that way again. Next time they’ll adapt their choices and, hopefully, get a better result.
By contrast, someone with a high external locus of control tends to believe that, more often than not, outside forces are responsible for the things that happen to them.
When something bad happens, they tend to believe they were a victim of circumstance beyond their control: they didn’t get the breaks, someone else’s bad behaviour or negligence caused it. It was their parents’ fault. It was the fault of this or that group of people. It was the will of the Cosmos.
Now, locus of control is a spectrum: it’s not a binary thing. No one is 100% internal or external. But when we feel more often than not that things happen to us, rather than feeling that we cause things to happen, we move our own locus of control further away from ourselves.
The more we start pointing that finger away from ourselves and towards The Other, the more we encode ourselves with a victim mentality.
Victim versus victimhood
Now let’s just pick this part.
We’re all made victims at some point or another. None of us gets through life, or even this week, without something inconvenient, unpleasant and unjust happening to us. We might be the victim of petty theft, and very unpleasant it is too.
We might be the victim of bad timing: like when the car breaks down right at the end of the month and we don’t have the money to fix it, so we’re stranded for a week until we get paid.
These things are huge pains. And you might cry, “Why now!”
Or you might cry “Why me?”
Thing is, stuff happens at random for no reason. Stuff happens to the good and the bad alike. Everyone is a victim of something at some point. But only when we start saying “Why me?” more often than we say “Why now?” do we begin encoding our thinking with a victim mentality.
A victim mentality is different from the simple fact of having been a victim of something.
A victim mentality occurs when we acquire, develop, learn to adopt the pervasive and universal belief that we are the victim of misfortune or wrongdoing through no fault of our own. We hold onto that belief, and hold ourselves blameless, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary.
It begins when we are harmed in some way and we discover that the compassion and the distinction this confers upon us as a result tastes sweet. The reward centres in our brains are stimulated, we get a dopamine hit, and so we look for a way to make that happen again. And again.
We start to feel — dysfunctionally — that the present rewards of martyrdom outweigh the future rewards of making a change.
The problem of course with this is that the more you signal to others in this way that you prefer victimhood to self-actuation, the more the more clearly you identify yourself to the unscrupulous as someone who can be manipulated and controlled for profit.
Whom do we choose as our agents?
Very often it’s simply the person or entity with the loudest voice and the most aggressive desire to control us.
“Well, he was talking with so much authority that I just assumed he was in charge.”
“I was only following orders.”
To put this in perspective, let’s talk a little about Wilhelm Reich. Reich was an Austrian- American psychoanalyst, one of the first generation of psychoanalysts and a protégé of Sigmund Freud who died in1957.
Reich and his writings were well-respected during the first part of his adult life in Vienna. But then, after 1939, he moved to the US and began writing about orgone energy.
Orgone energy, Reich claimed, was the invisible sexual life-force energy that made up every part of the universe. It had eluded science thus far, but Reich could detect it. Albert Einstein, whom Reich consulted, concluded Reich was witnessing simple convection heating.
But Reich persisted. Without scientific rigour or peer consensus, he concluded that disease and neurosis were caused by deficits in bodily orgone energy. Patients could thus be healed using special boxes he called orgone accumulators. He charged for the service.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined Reich was making false or misleading claims and banned the sale and distribution of orgone materials. Reich ignored the ban and continued trading. The FDA destroyed his materials, burned his books and jailed him.
And yet today I can go onto Etsy and find — and I quote — an “Orgonite Charging Dish for Cleansing and Purifying Crystals” for just £228.38 plus shipping. The seller claims it cures cancer. Who knew, right? I mean why go through all the chemo when for just £228.38 plus shipping I could get basically a bowl?
Reich abandoned psychotherapy, which might look to help the patient regain a measure of control over their thinking, in favour of becoming the gatekeeper to a mystical spiritual intervention, in which the patient is passive. There is still no empirical support for orgone energy in science or medicine. Which means if you want to trust in orgone therapy, you’ll need to believe in magic.
The Church of Scientology was founded by a science fiction writer called Ron, who believed that aliens had infected us with toxic emotional blockages called engrams, which he could audit with a machine based on a rudimentary polygraph and remove via counselling that only members of the Church of Scientology could perform. The Church charges a LOT of money for this service and ruthlessly litigates against any unauthorised use of its techniques. Scientology literally patented salvation.
Do you see a pattern emerging?
Let’s think back to Rousseau and why he got in so much trouble. Rousseau specifically wanted to separate the act of confession and the power of judgement from the Church. He wanted humans to self-judge and self-heal. But he wasn’t an atheist — far from it. He was comfortable with the metaphysical, with spirituality and with faith. He believed in God. But he rejected God’s self-appointed agents, the gatekeepers, the controllers.
And God didn’t jail him. Men did that.
You might feel that the men who acted as gatekeepers to salvation in Rousseau’s time had a vested interest in keeping the people’s locus of control on such matters externalised. Because as a long as a person can be persuaded to do nothing and instead believe that one organisation’s special, privileged iteration of the magical will bring about intervention from above, the people with that magic machine can charge admission. In more or less any way they choose.
They may only ask for money. But they may ask for far more: your detachment from earthly goals and possessions, from your job, your family, friends and lovers, from doctors and psychotherapists.
Magic beans do not come cheap.
But agency is free.
Magical thinking gives us hope where none might exist and this belief in an unknowable something bigger than ourselves can provide great comfort and strength.
So I don’t personally believe it’s necessary to close ourselves off to the possibility of magic. I’m not Richard Dawkins. We don’t know everything. Maybe Reich was right about orgones. Maybe the crystal will protect you. Let’s not close the door to magic.
But you know what? Let’s not wait for that magic to show up for us. Let’s not appoint magic as our agent and let’s definitely not devolve control to someone who claims to have the only key to the magic beans. Let’s act for ourselves each day as if we don’t need the magic, because while we’re waiting for the magic to show up on its silver unicorn, what are we going to do? The ruthless sure love a victim.
Pwn your locus
So how do you start to shift your own locus of control away from the external and towards the internal?
Start by regaining control of little things. Let’s take an example of micro-control.
Every night before I get ready for bed I perform the following ritual to make sure I begin the next day as well as I can.
I wash the dishes and clean the kitchen worktop. It takes about 10 minutes. I take the trash out. It takes three minutes. I set my electronic devices to charge. It takes about 30 seconds. I put bleach down the toilet: takes three seconds.
In less than fifteen minutes, I completely changed my outlook on the day that is about to come. I wake up to a clean, fresh space and all my devices are ready to go.
Sounds trivial? Well there’s nothing like the build-up of multiple little tasks hanging over you to take the shine out of your new day. But this tiny routine today will have a major impact on how you think tomorrow. Do it without fail for 30 days and it will become an automatic habit. When it becomes a habit, starting the day fresh and clear and positive will also be a habit.
Let’s expand out from the micro-environment. Take yourself for a timed 30-minute walk every day. Without fail. Aside from all the other benefits, the walk will clear your head and make you feel readier to tackle other things. Do it without fail for 30 days and it will become a habit. When your walk becomes a habit, then feeling readier to tackle other things will also become a habit. That’s why I made 30 Walks in the first place.
Let’s expand even further. Think back to the last walk we did, about finding the activity that allows you to live in the moment as your true self, unhindered by ego-identity and responsibility. Schedule that. Schedule it as often as you can make time for, but give it at least two hours a week. Because when that becomes a habit, then rejoicing in the moment becomes a habit, too.
Ready to expand a little more?
Kill those to-do lists. Kill them with fire. Those lists you make that are nothing but a statement of things you have so far failed to achieve and things you will probably never have time for? Burn them. Instead, get your calendar and schedule them. Plan your day. Make a time for each thing. Don’t schedule more than you can do. Keep it simple and keep to your schedule. When the time comes to file that tax return, file it like a robot. Thirty minutes later, it’s done and you can move a little freer onto the next thing.
And I saved the best one until last.
Schedule time to worry.
If you spend half the night tossing and turning about the things you didn’t do that you should have and the things that might happen that you could avoid … then I respectfully suggest you are doing it wrong.
The night is when you need to sleep, because without rest you’re only ever taking on the world on the fumes of an empty tank. So you know what? Now you have a scheduling habit, you’re going to go right ahead and schedule in your worry time. I give my anxiety two hours on Thursday afternoon. The first hour is for taking stock of everything that is scaring the hell out of me: I make a list of all the scary things and divide them up
Can I control this? Yes / No
I’m worried about doing my tax return. Can I control this? Yes.
I’m worried about Donald Trump. Can I control this? No.
Next I cross out all the things I can’t control. Because, anxiety-inducing as they may be, my worry time can’t fix them.
Now I have a list of things that are scaring me that I can control. So for each thing on my list I determine a course of action. I’m worried about doing my tax return: what are my choices? Schedule time to do it or schedule time to call an accountant. I make my choice and when that time comes on my schedule, I do the thing and it is gone.
If I’m tempted to worry outside my scheduled anxiety time, I just say: I’ll deal with that on Thursday. Knowing I have a dedicated time to worry about something, means I can perform a little mind hack: instead of brushing it under the carpet, I allow myself to worry. But I decide and control when I worry about it and do it at a time when I can take action to reduce it.
Now, not only will working this way help you to demonstrably regain control of the stuff that weighs you down, but making a habit of this will demonstrably help you shift your entire locus of control a few notches from the external to the internal. You’ll be proud of the control you exerted over aspects of your life and now, when that big thing looms you’ll have confidence that you can be the boss of it.
Now, when one of those self-appointed gatekeepers tries to tell you: do nothing and trust in us, you will know where to send them.
Classical tragedy hangs on the notion of hamartia. But we are not living in classical tragedy. Outside of Cocteau’s imaginative vocabulary, there is no infernal machine. Just because we suffered once, doesn’t mean we have to stay in that moment, like a stuck needle on a record, and go over the same refrain again and again.
Liberation is accepting our own agency while understanding that the universe is random and sometimes … stuff happens. And sooner or later we will all be victims of that stuff.
But that stuff does not define us, because we are not living in a classical tragedy. So we can dispense with histrionic declarations of “O poor me”. And we can dispense with our demands for special passes because “O poor me”. Because all that special pass does is put a big neon sign on your head saying, abusers and manipulators this way please. In shifting our locus of control we move that neon sign to the exit door and take a firm, decisive step to liberation.
Because I think, all things considered, the real fatal error is believing in the inevitability of our own victimhood. Now that — really would be tragic.