Our modern culture is inherently aggressive, but – more than this – it is aggressive in a covert way. There are of course those members of society who are perfectly overt in the manifestation of their aggression (who are aggressive in such a way that we can all see and understand immediately) but this aggression is generally impotent – it is aggression that doesn’t really get anywhere, since it is far too visible. Overt aggression is – generally speaking – a characteristic of the powerless, rather than the powerful. Most of us have learned – at an early age – the trick of ‘being aggressive in a covert way’. We smile and are polite, but underneath it all we are competing for all we are worth! Underneath the civilized facade we are ruthlessly self-serving. Not everyone is like this of course but the ones who aren’t tend – on the whole – to be at a great disadvantage to the majority who are.
In our culture being covertly aggressive is something to be admired – as a characteristic it is highly valued, whereas when we don’t have this characteristic this is seen as the same thing as being ‘weak’. Moreover, if you happen to be someone who is not predominately aggressive, and you are surrounded by lots of people who are, then what this means is that everyone else is going to discover your ‘weakness’ and proceed to exploit you on a methodical basis. Anyone who hasn’t noticed this happening just hasn’t been paying attention! If we are not this way ourselves then everyone is going to see us as fair game with regard to bending us to their own agendas. The game we all play is the game of ‘power’ and so if someone doesn’t want to play (or for whatever reason can’t play) then they get to be exploited, then they get to be manipulated – it’s as simple as this.
So we live in a world where ruthless manipulation is the norm, a world where anyone who isn’t proficient in this area very quickly gets pushed up against the wall. The only way to get by in such a world is to get better at manipulating, to get better at exercising power, than most other people, and not competing simply isn’t an option that is open to us. We either learn to play the game or we sink, and get exploited to the hilt by the true ‘master players’ – often without even realizing that this has happened. The nature of the game is that ‘winning’ means controlling others, and the very best players – the true experts – play so well no else even knows that they are being controlled. This is therefore the case for most of us – we have been manipulated or controlled to the point where our lives are no longer our own, and we have no idea that this is the case…
It might sound that what we are talking about is something akin to what is generally called ‘the law of the jungle’ – this being the case, shouldn’t we just get on with it as best we can? If this is the natural way for things to be, why shouldn’t we just accept the game for what it is? This is undoubtedly the easiest attitude to take – let the natural law prevail, harsh though it may seem! There’s a problem with this ‘answer’ however because – it turns out – being a successful game-player, being a successful manipulator, actually doesn’t benefit anyone! It doesn’t even benefit the winner, the successful game-player. This point is not quite so easy to understand as it otherwise might be, given our heavy conditioning in the opposite direction. The point in question (which shouldn’t really need stating) is that being a successful manipulator isn’t conducive to personal happiness!
Quite the reverse is true, as we all know very well on some level or other. We are all constantly being bombarded by images of people who are both ‘successful in the game’ and ‘conspicuously happy’ and a lifetime’s exposure to such images naturally makes it very hard to avoid making some kind of subconscious association between the two. The association is made for us by the corporations which wish to sell us their products, but it doesn’t actually exist in reality. There is no connection between being ‘successful at the game’ and ‘being happy’, just as there is no connection between ‘buying the product that is being advertised’ and ‘being happy’.
If we were to think about all the people we know, and try to work out if the happiest amongst them are those who happen to be the best at ‘getting their own way’ (i.e. those who have the greatest talent in manipulating others) then very clearly the answer would come back that this is not the case. It is most emphatically not the case! Expert manipulators (or inveterate game-players) tend to be the most miserable of people, not the most joyful. Becoming very good at getting your own way (or ‘achieving whatever it is that you set out to achieve’, as it is more usually put) is a defective strategy as regards happiness. To believe otherwise would be tantamount to believing that being a successful psychopath is the best way to be happy and fulfilled in life!
On the face of it, being very good at obtaining whatever it is that you want to obtain’ might indeed sound like a recipe for happiness and personal fulfilment. This is after all our ‘default motivation’ – our default way of operating in the world. Our basic default motivation is to try to obtain whatever it is that we feel drawn to, in whichever way might prove successful. This is what we do pretty much all the time, one way or another, and why would we do it if we didn’t think that it was going to make us happy? Why would we do anything if we didn’t think that it was going to make us happy? We automatically think it is going to make us happy, but the thing is – of course – that it doesn’t. If it did then we actually would be happy and for the most part we aren’t…
Trying to be successful in acting out our desires is a basic ‘reflex action’. That happens all by itself – we just go along with it. As we make our way through life however we generally grow to realize that it is the other stuff that makes us happy, not the manipulation, not the ‘getting our own way’. This understanding is what has traditionally been called wisdom! Our contemporary society inhibits wisdom – it makes out that it doesn’t of course but it does. It stands in the way of us becoming wise. As many have pointed out, what we call education’ has nothing to do with imparting wisdom – what we call ‘education’ is all about imparting skills and knowledge that will help us fit into society, and our society (as we have already pointed out) is a system based on overt coercion, or ‘manipulation’. Education narrows us and makes us functionally useful within the narrow frame of reference that is society. If it made us wise (instead of making us merely clever or skilful or knowledgeable) then this would prove a disaster for society – we would take one look at it and walk away!
Our collective human wisdom tells us that it is not through being a sly master of ‘one-upmanship’ that we get to find meaning and joy in life. This has been a lesson that we have been learning not only individually in the course of our own lives, but also collectively over the course of many hundreds of thousands of years. This is the ‘age-old lesson’. And yet our modern culture tells us otherwise! Our modern culture has sold us the idea that by struggling as hard as we can to climb to the top of the competitive dung-heap – and treading on as many heads as we need to in the process – we will somehow attain the ultimate fulfilment, the ultimate satisfaction. This it calls ‘success’ and success – when it comes right down to it – is all about manipulating the hell out of everyone else…
The bottom-line however is as we have been saying that ‘cultivating a manipulative mind’ and ‘happiness’ do not go together. They are not good bedfellows – the two simply don’t go together in the same breath. It’s just not the case that if I get supremely skilful at manipulating stuff then I will be able to manipulate life into making me happy. As soon as we express the idea like this we can see that there is something very wrong with this assumption! This is tantamount to saying that we can lie and scheme our way to happiness, which is an idea that only makes sense in Wall St, an idea that only makes sense to a psychopath. Happiness, as William J Bennett says, is like a cat that jumps in our lap only when we are not trying to entice it to do so:
Happiness is like a cat. If you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you. It will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing up against your legs and jumping into your lap.
We could also say that happiness is like a small, somewhat feral child who will approach us only out of their own native curiosity and not as a result of whatever bribes or coercions we may bring to bear. If we try to be authoritative about it – in some typical kind of overbearing heavy-handed adult fashion – and demand that the child approach, it will run away in a flash. Happiness will then come nowhere near us – which is why being ‘steroptypically adult’ (in the way that we are supposed to be in society) is a recipe for being miserable and humourless on the inside, even if we do make an effort (as we generally do) to keep on smiling and being enthusiastic on the outside.
It’s not just that scheming and manipulating fails to win happiness but rather that the unwholesome state of mind that relies on schemes and manipulation drives away happiness just as a thief in the night is driven away by the sound of oncoming police sirens! You couldn’t find a better way of driving away happiness than this! To adopt a scheming or calculating frame of mind as a way of dealing with life is in fact an infallible way of generating misery. And if we try to get extra-clever, extra-manipulative by making a point of not manipulating then this isn’t going to help us either. If the regular old type of manipulation is ‘dishonest aggression’, then ‘manipulating by deliberately not manipulating’ is simply a dishonest or covert form of the regular type of manipulation! If anything this is going to make us even more miserable that the regular type of manipulation because there is another level of dishonesty added to the mix.
Covert aggression is just not a good road to go down, therefore. Control and manipulation is not a good road to go down – the further down it we go the more suffering we create. What’s more, once we have started off in this direction then control becomes the only principle we understand. When we get invested in control then we lose the perspective that we would need to see that control (and cleverness) isn’t the answer to everything. This is therefore what we might call an irreversible road or ‘one-way street’ – we can’t plan to stop planning, we can’t scheme a way of not scheming, we can’t force ourselves to stop forcing.
Because we have gone so far down this road we can’t see the value in being open and without an agenda. We can’t see the value of being non-aggressive, non-coercive. Or rather we can see the value (we are now collectively starting to see the value as more and more research is being popularly reported as showing that being compassionate and non-aggressive correlates with happiness whilst being competitive, controlling and goal-driven does not), but even though we can understand it in one way, in a deeper, more profound way we still don’t understand it at all. In this – the Age of Manipulation – we are so lost that we even think that we can use this ‘non-judgemental, non-aggressive approach’ as a tool…