Letting Go of Autonomy to Gain Control

Best-Selling author John Green’s recent appearance on The Hilarious World of Depression with John Moe offers up a fascinating narrative of an author struggling for autonomy over Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and a fiction that holds him hostage.

It’s not surprising that Green is so successful in connecting with young adults. Some of the unanswerable ideas that he wrestles with are the same that preoccupied me when I was his readers’ age. They represent the conflicts that arise when one’s worldview bumps up against one’s experience. Since rumination is a behavior common to both OCD and depression, a few of these commonly held beliefs are worth paraphrasing here.

He spoke about the challenge of connecting with readers in his most recent book Turtles All the Way Down.  

I was trying really really hard to find the right ways, for me, of talking about what it’s like to lose your sense of self and to lose your feeling of realness, to lose your sense that you’re the captain of your consciousness.

If I look back on all the angst-producing beliefs that I struggled with in my teen years, the idea that I was captain of my consciousness has to be one of the most angsty.

I had no control over the ideas that popped into my head. Sometimes painful emotions blindsided me. This was particularly embarrassing and isolating because I thought I was surrounded by people who were captains of their consciousness, who had a strong sense of self. Since I was the only one who couldn’t control my thoughts and emotions, I worked like hell to hide the fact out of fear they’d throw me in the looney bin.

The first time I sat down to do breath meditation I could only focus my attention for a few seconds because I lacked that captain of consciousness that everyone else had. Not only was I crazy, this technique for quieting my craziness would never work.

It took me years to learn why I’d failed at such a simple task. The problem wasn’t that the captain of my consciousness was AWOL. The problem was that the idea that we are the captain of our consciousness is a story.

There’s an easy test you can perform to determine whether you’re the captain of your consciousness. Don’t think of purple elephants. If you didn’t think of purple elephants, you are captain of your consciousness.

I don’t think we humans like to imagine our lives as random. We need lives to be narratives that make sense. We want every effect to have a cause and when we can’t find that cause we invent one.

The weekend before this podcast episode showed up in my iTunes feed, five biopics opened in movie theaters: all attempts to turn lives into narratives that make sense. I don’t often go to see these because they have a tendency to be formulaic.

In “Enough with the Biopic: A Re-Examination of Cinema’s Least Interesting Genre,” Jon Lisi writes: “Perhaps the most common formula for the biopic involves the story beginning at childhood or some defining moment in youth, and then concluding at old age or an untimely death. These life-spanning biopics highlight the struggles and setbacks, and usually end with an uplifting scene that reinforces the significance of a real person’s legacy.”

When we look back to the earliest stories, cave paintings of the hunt, it’s easy to see the evolutionary advantage of a brain that can link cause and effect and convey that cause and effect to others.

We might think that imagining our lives as random makes for a sad story, but:

I believe we have a choice in this world about how to tell sad stories. On the one hand, we can sugercoat it. Nothing is too messed up that can’t be fixed with a Peter Gabriel song. I like this version as much as the next girl does. It’s just not the truth.

This quote from Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, reminds me of Tara Brach’s distinction between what is real and what is true.

I agree that our brain wants every effect to have a cause and when we can’t find the cause we invent one. But, when we wake up on Christmas morning to find the gifts that Santa Claus left under the decorated tree, what we believe is real. It’s just not true.

Making sure that every effect has an understandable cause is essential to good storytelling. Unfortunately, if we try to put together the puzzle of our lives, we’re going to wind up with pieces that just don’t fit.

It isn’t that our lives are random. Every effect does have a cause. But the vast majority of causes elude our understanding, and many causes elude all current scientific knowledge. If we believe that the narrative of our life is true, we’re forced to answer unanswerable questions, which leads to rumination, which leads to perpetual vexation.

This is real. I’m in my real basement right now and I’m going to really edit this video and upload it. But, it’s also inevitably a construction.

Here, Green refers to the video blog that he produces with his brother, but it is also true of any narrative, including life narratives.

We can edit out the parts of a story or a video that we don’t like. But, if we go to the doctor’s office with symptoms of fatigue and the tests show we have cancer, editing that doctor visit out of our narrative won’t make that plot point go away.

So much of my obsessive thinking is trying to solve a problem of recursive thinking through recursive thinking. I would always say to myself just stop thinking that way, which nobody ever says about the flu.

My obsessive thinking has always centered on how to treat my allergies, as I mentioned in “Treatment Options.” Allergies are the immune system’s effort to fight off substances that aren’t harmful. Like obsessive thinking, its side effects are worse than the perceived threat.

I tried breathing exercises to calm asthma. I tried immunotherapy to coax my body to build up tolerance to these harmless substances. I tried watching everything I ate and keeping my environment meticulously clean. None of my attempts to cure my allergies were successful. Each failure made me feel less autonomous, less in control.

Every time I tried to tough out an asthma attack, I actually made future symptoms worse. Every time one thinks obsessive thoughts, they actually alter their brain to think more obsessive thoughts in the future.

My self is also the stories that I tell about it and that gives me a measure of control and a measure of autonomy.

As difficult as it was for me to admit that the captain of my consciousness couldn’t control my allergic reactions, ceding my autonomy to my doctors and drug manufacturers has helped me control my reality.

John Green hates the idea that he needs to take drugs to be himself.

But, as much as we like the idea of being in control and being autonomous, for a captain to successfully navigate stormy waters, she better not be looking inward, but outward. A skilled captain recognizes that she’s not autonomous. But, with the help of a good crew, she can safely make it back to port.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.