When in Rome…Do as Caligula

Happy New Year!

Procrastination is  the most egalitarian seduction. Probably much like you, I’m about 48 hours into the next year of ongoing defeat – of living with the fact that all ambition and urgency recedes in the face of the ever-present lure of the next hour, the next day. Tomorrow and tomorrow and etc, et al, amen. And let’s not even begin discussing the way that travel complications, well, complicate the delicate balance one tries to strike between work and play.

It’s okay! According to Daniel Akst’s book We Have Met the Enemy, we can’t be blamed too much for what one wise lady once called “the inability of the outcome,” whatever that means. I reviewed Akst’s book in today’s Boston Globe, and although Akst says some silly things (for instance,  when he favorably compares cystic fibrosis to alcoholism – unlike alcoholism, the symptoms of cystic fibrosis don’t disappear when you put a gun to a sufferer’s head, which means that it’s a real disease, not purely a weakness of will), the book is a persuasive overview of why we often fail to do what we say we want to do. It’s hard.

From the review:

Akst defines self-control as “deciding which of your desires you really want to espouse and then upholding them against the challenge of the competing desires that you like less.’’ Basic but difficult. Akst argues, quite convincingly, that people lacking self-control possess a diminished appreciation of the future. From mental phenomena such as “time inconsistency’’ and “melioration’’ (“the frustrating way our preferences change along with our state of desire’’ and the tendency to ask “what’s a few more minutes surfing the Internet?’’) to environment and heredity, Akst’s convincing archive, ranging from Plato and Locke to neurolaw and studies that correlate childhood willpower with adult addiction, argues that we don’t so much have a persistent free will as we have a sporadic “free won’t.’’ Even our minds are structurally at war. The neocortex, with its appreciation for an abstract future, vies for dominance with the limbic system, which demands that you get while the getting’s good. Culturally our will is weak; biologically it may be nonexistent.


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