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Soulful Sundays: Trade-Offs

"There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs." -Thomas Sowell

Faust, is a German folk story popularized by the 19th-century playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe . The arc of the tale goes something like this: Faust is a highly successful scholar, yet becomes dissatisfied with his life and enters a deep depression. In an attempt to cure his depression, he invokes the help of the Devil. Mephistopheles, the embodiment of the Devil, shows up and offers him a bargain--his soul for a period of unlimited knowledge and power. He takes the deal and proceeds to ruin his life and the lives of others, one tragedy after another. Eventually, when he dies and the Devil comes for his soul, God overturns the bargain. His reason...Faust's striving nature and the pleas of his lover, Gretchen. What can we learn from this tale?

There is no such thing as a free lunch. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Energy cannot be created nor destroyed. These maxims apply to biology, physics, economics, society, your life, my life, and everything else you can think of. An advantage in one area comes through sacrifice in another. Even Faust found that no matter how much knowledge and power he accumulated, he could not outrun his eventual death, loneliness, and despair.

When we look at the inner-workings of complex systems--a set that includes, among other things, the human body, culture, ecosystems, politics, religion, and climate--the emergent theme is that complex problems are rarely solved with simple answers. We see this in medicine when we add a single drug and cause a plethora of unintended iatrogenic side effects. We see it in climate change when we over-focus on carbon reduction and cripple the energy supply of Europe. We see it in politics when we give one person or one political ideology too much power, and alienate the majority of the constituency. We see it in natural environments when a single introduced species decimates endemic populations.

A paradox emerges when we consider the human mind's affinity for simple solutions. If you haven't read Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast, and Slow, I would highly recommend getting a copy. He details the numerous ways that our brain's "cheat" to reduce complex issues into simple heuristics. We developed these shortcuts to save time and energy, and a majority of the time these simplifications are accurate (thus reinforcing their utility). However, when they are not accurate, discord is created between how we perceive the world and how the world actually is. When this occurs amongst people or ideologies, one of three scenarios ensues:

1) The most dominate group/idea subjugates the others, 2) the disparate groups/ideas split apart, or 3) the groups/ideas compromise and form an alliance based on mutual respect for the other.

The third option is a balance of the poles, and most well-adjusted people and societies seek this solution. This is why we developed language, government, and culture in the first place--in order to better cooperate with one another and mutually accept the trade-offs necessary for a successful future. We also create a better map of the world by learning from the perspectives of others. Any ideology that sees itself as the Truth at the exclusion of other ideas and inputs is by definition incomplete. Granted, not all ideas are created equal, and those attempting to belittle or destroy others simply should not be tolerated. The caveat, however, is that we should not dismiss them casually, as they point to pathology in the organism as a whole.

Next time you find yourself in an inter-personal quandary ask yourself these questions: What does the other person want? What do I want? Are the two compatible? What trade-offs am I willing to make to get closer to what I want? Does this other person mean me harm? If so, how do I protect myself most effectively? For intra-personal battles ask yourself these: What are my internal expectations? To what degree are these accurate? How much control do I actually have over the outcome? What actions can I actually control? What trade-offs do I need to make to take those actions? What is the worst thing that can possibly happen, and will I know what to do next if it does?

It is not possible to succeed in everything, but it is possible to succeed in the places where you choose to put your energy. In time you will see that sacrifice is at the core of freedom. When you are prepared to do necessary, hard things voluntarily, you release yourself from the illusion (and heartbreak) that you are entitled to an outcome. You are only entitled to your own degree of effort and responsibility. Again and again, you will see that there are no solutions, only trade-offs--and you play a crucial role in choosing them.

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