The first time Isaac Newton got hit in the face, he was standing in a field. His uncle had been explaining to him why wheat should be planted in diagonal rows, but Isaac wasn’t listening. He was gazing into the sun, wondering what the light was made of.
He was seven years old.¹
His uncle backhanded him so hard across his left cheek that Isaac’s sense of self temporarily broke upon the ground on which his body fell. He lost any feeling of personal cohesion. And as the parts of his psyche put themselves back together, some secret piece of himself remained in the dirt, left behind in a place from which it would never be recovered.
Isaac’s father had died before he was born, and his mother soon abandoned her son to marry some old rich guy the next village over. As a result, Isaac spent his formative years being shuffled among uncles, cousins, and grandparents. No one particularly wanted him. Few knew what to do with him. He was a burden. Love came difficultly, and usually not at all.
Isaac’s uncle was an uneducated drunk, but he did know how to count hedges and rows in fields. It was his one intellectual skill, and because of this, he did it probably more often than he needed to. Isaac often tagged along to these row-counting sessions because it was the only time his uncle ever paid attention to him. And like water in a desert, any attention the boy got he desperately soaked in.
As it turned out, the boy was a kind of prodigy. By age eight, he could project the amount of feed required to sustain the sheep and pigs for the following season. By nine, he could rattle off the top of his head calculations for hectares of wheat, barley, and potatoes.
By age ten, Isaac had decided that farming was stupid and instead turned his attention to calculating the exact trajectory of the sun throughout the seasons. His uncle didn’t care about the exact trajectory of the sun because it wouldn’t put food on the table—at least not directly—so, again, he hit Isaac.
School didn’t make things any better. Isaac was pale and scrawny and absentminded. He lacked social skills. He was into nerdy shit like sundials, Cartesian planes, and determining whether the moon was actually a sphere. While the other kids played cricket or chased one another through the woods, Isaac stood staring for hours into local streams, wondering how the eyeball was capable of seeing light.
Isaac Newton’s early life was one hit after another. And with each blow, his Feeling Brain learned to feel an immutable truth: that there must be something inherently wrong with him. Why else would his parents have abandoned him? Why else would his peers ridicule him? What other explanation for his near-constant solitude? While his Thinking Brain occupied itself drawing fanciful graphs and charting the lunar eclipses, his Feeling Brain silently internalized the knowledge that there was something fundamentally broken about this small English boy from Lincolnshire.
One day, he wrote in his school notebook, “I am a little fellow. Pale and weak. There is no room for me. Not in the house or in the bottom of hell. What can I do? What am I good for? I cannot but weep.”²
Up until this point, everything you’ve read about Newton is true—or at least highly plausible. But let’s pretend for a moment that there’s a parallel universe. And let’s say that in this parallel universe there is another Isaac Newton, much like our own. He still comes from a broken and abusive family. He still lives a life of angry isolation. He still prodigiously measures and calculates everything he encounters.
But let’s say that instead of obsessively measuring and calculating the external, natural world, this Parallel Universe Newton decides to obsessively measure and calculate the internal, psychological world, the world of the human mind and heart.
This isn’t a huge leap of the imagination, as the victims of abuse are often the keenest observers of human nature. For you and me, people-watching may be something fun to do on a random Sunday in the park. But for the abused, it’s a survival skill. For them, violence might erupt at any moment, therefore, they develop a keen Spidey sense to protect themselves. A lilt in someone’s voice, the rise of an eyebrow, the depth of a sigh—anything can set off their internal alarm.
So, let’s imagine this Parallel Universe Newton, this “Emo Newton,” turned his obsession toward the people around him. He kept notebooks, cataloging all the observable behaviors of his peers and family. He scribbled relentlessly, documenting every action, every word. He filled hundreds of pages with inane observations of the kind of stuff people don’t even realize they do. Emo Newton hoped that if measurement could be used to predict and control the natural world, the shapes and configurations of the sun and moon and stars, then it should also be able to predict and control the internal, emotional world.
And through his observations, Emo Newton realized something painful that we all kind of know, but that few of us ever want to admit: that people are liars, all of us. We lie constantly and habitually.³ We lie about important things and trifling things. And we usually don’t lie out of malice—rather, we lie to others because we’re in such a habit of lying to ourselves.⁴
Isaac noted that light refracted through people’s hearts in ways that they themselves did not seem to see; that people said they loved those whom they appeared to hate; professed to believe one thing while doing another; imagined themselves righteous while committing acts of the grandest dishonesty and cruelty. Yet, in their own minds, they somehow believed their actions to be consistent and true.
Isaac decided that no one could be trusted. Ever. He calculated that his pain was inversely proportional to the distance squared he put between himself and the world. Therefore, he kept to himself, staying in no one’s orbit, spinning out and away from the gravitational tug of any other human heart. He had no friends; nor, he decided, did he want any. He concluded that the world was a bleak, wretched place and that the only value to his pathetic life was his ability to document and calculate that wretchedness.
For all his surliness, Isaac certainly didn’t lack ambition. He wanted to know the trajectory of men’s hearts, the velocity of their pain. He wished to know the force of their values and the mass of their hopes. And most important, he wanted to understand the relationships among all these elements.
He decided to write Newton’s Three Laws of Emotion.⁵
NEWTON’S FIRST LAW OF EMOTION
For Every Action, There Is an Equal and Opposite Emotional Reaction
Imagine that I punch you in the face. No reason. No justification. Just pure violence.
Your instinctual reaction might be to retaliate in some way. Maybe it’d be physical: you’d punch me back. Maybe it’d be verbal: you’d call me a bunch of four-letter words. Or maybe your retaliation would be social: you’d call the police or some other authority and have me punished for assaulting you.
Regardless of your response, you would feel a rush of negative emotion directed toward me. And rightly so—clearly, I’m an awful person. After all, the idea that I get to cause you pain with no justification, without your deserving pain, generates a sense of injustice between us. A kind of moral gap opens between us: the sense that one of us is inherently righteous, and the other is an inferior piece of shit.⁶
Pain causes moral gaps. And it’s not just between people. If a dog bites you, your instinct is to punish it. If you stub your toe on a coffee table, what do you do? You yell at the damn coffee table. If your home is washed away in a flood, you are overcome with grief and become furious at God, the universe, life itself.
These are moral gaps. They are a sense that something wrong has just happened and you (or someone else) deserve to be made whole again. Wherever there is pain, there is always an inherent sense of superiority/inferiority. And there’s always pain.
When confronted with moral gaps, we develop overwhelming emotions toward equalization, or a return to moral equality. These desires for equalization take the form of a sense of deserving. Because I punched you, you feel I deserve to be punched back or punished in some way. This feeling (of my deserving pain) will cause you to have strong emotions about me (most likely anger). You will also have strong emotions around the feeling that you didn’t deserve to be punched, that you did no wrong, and that you deserve better treatment from me and everyone else around you. These feelings might take the form of sadness, self-pity, or confusion.
This whole sense of “deserving” something is a value judgment we make in the face of a moral gap. We decide that something is better than something else; that one person is more righteous or just than another; that one event is less desirable than another. Moral gaps are where our values are born.
Now, let’s pretend I apologize to you for punching you. I say, “Hey, reader, that was totally unfair and, wow, I was way out of line. That will never, ever happen again. And as a symbol of my overwhelming regret and guilt—here, I baked you a cake. Oh, and here’s a hundred bucks. Enjoy.”
Let’s also pretend that this is somehow satisfying to you. You accept my apology and my cake and the hundred dollars and genuinely feel that everything is fine. We’ve now “equalized.” The moral gap that was between us is gone. I’ve “made up” for it. You might even say we’re even—neither of us is a better or worse person than the other, neither of us deserves better or worse treatment than the other any longer. We’re operating on the same moral plane.
Equalizing like this restores hope. It means that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with you or wrong with the world. That you can go about your day with a sense of self-control, a hundred bucks, and a sweet-ass cake.
Now let’s imagine another scenario. This time, instead of punching you, let’s say I buy you a house.
Yes, reader, I just bought you a fucking house.
This will open up another moral gap between us. But instead of an overwhelming feeling of wanting to equalize the pain I’ve caused you, you will instead experience an overwhelming feeling of wanting to equalize the joy I’ve created. You might hug me, say “thank you” a hundred times, give me a gift in return, or promise to babysit my cat from now until eternity.
Or, if you’re particularly well mannered (and have some self-control), you may even attempt to refuse my offer to buy you a house because you recognize that it will open up a moral gap that you will never be able to surmount. You may acknowledge this by saying to me, “Thank you, but absolutely not. There’s no way for me ever to repay you.”
As with the negative moral gap, with the positive moral gap you will feel indebted to me, that you “owe me” something, that I deserve something good or that you need to “make it up” to me somehow. You will have intense feelings of gratitude and appreciation in my presence. You might even shed a tear of joy. (Aw, reader!)
It’s our natural psychological inclination to equalize across moral gaps, to reciprocate actions: positive for positive; negative for negative. The forces that impel us to fill those gaps are our emotions. In this sense, every action demands an equal and opposite emotional reaction. This is Newton’s First Law of Emotion.
Newton’s First Law is constantly dictating the flow of our lives because it is the algorithm by which our Feeling Brain interprets the world.⁷ If a movie causes more pain than it relieves, you become bored, or perhaps even angry. (Maybe you even attempt to equalize by demanding your money back.) If your mother forgets your birthday, maybe you equalize by ignoring her for the next six months. Or, if you’re more mature, you communicate your disappointment to her.⁸ If your favorite sports team loses in a horrible way, you will feel compelled to attend fewer games, or to cheer for them less. If you discover you have a talent for drawing, the admiration and satisfaction you derive from your competence will inspire you to invest time, energy, emotion, and money into the craft.⁹ If your country elects a bozo whom you can’t stand, you will feel a disconnect with your nation and government and even other citizens. You will also feel as though you are owed something in return for putting up with terrible policies.
Equalization is present in every experience because the drive to equalize is emotion itself. Sadness is a feeling of powerlessness to make up for a perceived loss. Anger is the desire to equalize through force and aggression. Happiness is feeling liberated from pain, while guilt is the feeling that you deserve some pain that never arrived.¹⁰
This desire for equalization underlies our sense of justice. It’s been codified throughout the ages into rules and laws, such as the Babylonian king Hammurabi’s classic “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” or the biblical Golden Rule, “Do unto others what you would have done unto you.” In evolutionary biology, it’s known as “reciprocal altruism,”¹¹ and in game theory, it’s called a “tit for tat” strategy.¹²
Newton’s First Law generates our sense of morality. It underlies our perceptions of fairness. It is the bedrock of every human culture. And . . .
It is the operating system of the Feeling Brain.
While our Thinking Brain creates factual knowledge around observation and logic, the Feeling Brain creates our values around our experiences of pain. Experiences that cause us pain create a moral gap within our minds, and our Feeling Brain deems those experiences inferior and undesirable. Experiences that relieve pain create a moral gap in the opposite direction, and our Feeling Brain deems those experiences superior and desirable.
One way to think about it is that the Thinking Brain makes lateral connections between events (sameness, contrasts, cause/effect, etc.), while the Feeling Brain makes hierarchical connections (better/worse, more desirable/less desirable, morally superior/morally inferior).¹³ Our Thinking Brain thinks horizontally (how are these things related?), while our Feeling Brain thinks vertically (which of these things is better/worse?). Our Thinking Brain decides how things are, and our Feeling Brain decides how things ought to be.
When we have experiences, our Feeling Brain creates a sort of value hierarchy for them.¹⁴ It’s as though we have a massive bookshelf in our subconscious where the best and most important experiences in life (with family, friends, burritos) are on the top shelf and the least desirable experiences (death, taxes, indigestion) are on the bottom. Our Feeling Brain then makes its decisions by simply pursuing experiences on the highest shelf possible.
Both brains have access to the value hierarchy. While the Feeling Brain determines what shelf something is on, the Thinking Brain is able to point out how certain experiences are connected and to suggest how the value hierarchy should be reorganized. This is essentially what “growth” is: reprioritizing one’s value hierarchy in an optimal way.¹⁵
For example, I once had a friend who was probably the hardest partier I’d ever known. She would stay out all night and then go straight to work from the party in the morning, with zero hours of sleep. She thought it lame to wake up early or stay home on a Friday night. Her value hierarchy went something like this:
Really awesome DJs
Really good drugs
One could predict her behavior solely from this hierarchy. She’d rather work than sleep. She’d rather party and get fucked up than work. And everything was about the music.
Then she did one of those volunteer abroad things, where young people spend a couple of months working with orphans in a Third World country and—well, that changed everything. The experience was so emotionally powerful that it completely rearranged her value hierarchy. Her hierarchy now looked something like this:
Saving children from unnecessary suffering
And suddenly, as if by magic, the parties stopped being fun. Why? Because they interfered with her new top value: helping suffering kids. She switched careers and was all about work now. She stayed in most nights. She didn’t drink or do drugs. She slept well—after all, she needed tons of energy to save the world.
Her party friends looked at her and pitied her; they judged her by their values, which were her old values. Poor party girl has to go to bed and get up for work every morning. Poor party girl can’t stay out doing MDMA every weekend.
But here’s the funny thing about value hierarchies: when they change, you don’t actually lose anything. It’s not that my friend decided to start giving up the parties for her career, it’s that the parties stopped being fun. That’s because “fun” is the product of our value hierarchies. When we stop valuing something, it ceases to be fun or interesting to us. Therefore, there is no sense of loss, no sense of missing out when we stop doing it. On the contrary, we look back and wonder how we ever spent so much time caring about such a silly, trivial thing, why we wasted so much energy on issues and causes that didn’t matter. These pangs of regret or embarrassment are good; they signify growth. They are the product of our achieving our hopes.
NEWTON’S SECOND LAW OF EMOTION
Our Self-Worth Equals the Sum of Our Emotions Over Time
Let’s return to the punching example, except this time, let’s pretend I exist within this magical force field that prevents any consequences from ever befalling me. You can’t punch me back. You can’t say anything to me. You can’t even say anything to anyone else about me. I am impervious—an all-seeing, all-powerful, evil ass-face.
Newton’s First Law of Emotion states that when someone (or something) causes us pain, a moral gap opens up and our Feeling Brain summons up icky emotions to motivate us to equalize.
But what if that equalization never comes? What if someone (or something) makes us feel awful, yet we are incapable of ever retaliating or reconciling? What if we feel powerless to do anything to equalize or “make things right?” What if my force field is just too powerful for you?
When moral gaps persist for a long enough time, they normalize.¹⁶ They become our default expectation. They lodge themselves into our value hierarchy. If someone hits us and we’re never able to hit him back, eventually our Feeling Brain will come to a startling conclusion:
We deserve to be hit.
After all, if we didn’t deserve it, we would have been able to equalize, right? The fact that we could not equalize means that there must be something inherently inferior about us, and/or something inherently superior about the person who hit us.
This, too, is part of our hope response. Because if equalization seems impossible, our Feeling Brain comes up with the next best thing: giving in, accepting defeat, judging itself to be inferior and of low value. When someone harms us, our immediate reaction is usually “He is shit, and I am righteous.” But if we’re not able to equalize and act on that righteousness, our Feeling Brain will believe the only alternative explanation: “I am shit, and he is righteous.”¹⁷
This surrender to persisting moral gaps is a fundamental part of our Feeling Brain’s nature. And it is Newton’s Second Law of Emotion: How we come to value everything in life relative to ourselves is the sum of our emotions over time.
This surrender to and acceptance of ourselves as inherently inferior is often referred to as shame or low self-worth. Call it what you want, the result is the same: Life kicks you around a little bit, and you feel powerless to stop it. Therefore, your Feeling Brain concludes that you must deserve it.
Of course, the reverse moral gap must be true as well. If we’re given a bunch of stuff without earning it (participation trophies and grade inflation and gold medals for coming in ninth place), we (falsely) come to believe ourselves inherently superior to what we actually are. We therefore develop a deluded version of high self-worth, or, as it’s more commonly known, being an asshole.
Self-worth is contextual. If you were bullied for your geeky glasses and funny nose as a child, your Feeling Brain will “know” that you’re a dweeb, even if you grow up to be a flaming sexpot of hotness. People who are raised in strict religious environments and are punished harshly for their sexual impulses often grow up with their Feeling Brain “knowing” that sex is wrong, even though their Thinking Brain has long worked out that sex is natural and totally awesome.
High and low self-worth appear different on the surface, but they are two sides of the same counterfeit coin. Because whether you feel as though you’re better than the rest of the world or worse than the rest of the world, the same thing is true: you’re imagining yourself as something special, something separate from the world.
A person who believes he deserves special treatment because of how great he is isn’t so different from someone who believes she deserves special treatment because of how shitty she is. Both are narcissistic. Both think they’re special. Both think the world should make exceptions and cater to their values and feelings over others’.
Narcissists will oscillate between feelings of superiority and inferiority.¹⁸ Either everyone loves them or everyone hates them. Everything is amazing, or everything is fucked. An event was either the best moment of their lives or traumatizing. With the narcissist, there’s no in-between, because to recognize the nuanced, indecipherable reality before him would require that he relinquish his privileged view that he is somehow special. Mostly, narcissists are unbearable to be around. They make everything about them and demand that people around them do the same.
You’ll see this high/low-self-worth switcheroo everywhere if you keep an eye out for it: mass murderers, dictators, whiny kids, your obnoxious aunt who ruins Christmas every year. Hitler preached that the world treated Germany so poorly after World War I only because it was afraid of German superiority.¹⁹ And in California more recently, one disturbed gunman justified trying to shoot up a sorority house with the fact that while women hooked up with “inferior” men he was forced to remain a virgin.²⁰
You can even find it within yourself, if you’re being honest. The more insecure you are about something, the more you’ll fly back and forth between delusional feelings of superiority (“I’m the best!”) and delusional feelings of inferiority (“I’m garbage!”)
Self-worth is an illusion.²¹ It’s a psychological construct that our Feeling Brain spins in order to predict what will help it and what will hurt it. Ultimately, we must feel something about ourselves in order to feel something about the world, and without those feelings, it’s impossible for us to find hope.
We all possess some degree of narcissism. It’s inevitable, as everything we ever know or experience has happened to us or been learned by us. The nature of our consciousness dictates that everything happen through us. It’s only natural, then, that our immediate assumption is that we are at the center of everything—because we are at the center of everything we experience.²²
We all overestimate our skills and intentions and underestimate the skills and intentions of others. Most people believe that they are of above-average intelligence and have an above-average ability at most things, especially when they are not and do not.²³ We all tend to believe that we’re more honest and ethical than we actually are.²⁴ We will each, given the chance, delude ourselves into believing that what’s good for us is also good for everyone else.²⁵ When we screw up, we tend to assume it was some happy accident.²⁶ But when someone else screws up, we immediately rush to judge that person’s character.²⁷
Persistent low-level narcissism is natural, but it’s also likely at the root of many of our sociopolitical problems. This is not a right-wing or a left-wing problem. This is not an older generation or younger generation problem. This is not an Eastern or Western problem.
This is a human problem.
Every institution will decay and corrupt itself. Each person, given more power and fewer restraints, will predictably bend that power to suit himself. Every individual will blind herself to her own flaws while seeking out the glaring flaws of others.
Welcome to Earth. Enjoy your stay.
Our Feeling Brains warp reality in such a way so that we believe that our problems and pain are somehow special and unique in the world, despite all evidence to the contrary. Human beings require this level of built-in narcissism because narcissism is our last line of defense against the Uncomfortable Truth. Because, let’s be real: People suck, and life is exceedingly difficult and unpredictable. Most of us are winging it as we go, if not completely lost. And if we didn’t have some false belief in our own superiority (or inferiority), a deluded belief that we’re extraordinary at something, we’d line up to swan-dive off the nearest bridge. Without a little bit of that narcissistic delusion, without that perpetual lie we tell ourselves about our specialness, we’d likely give up hope.
But our inherent narcissism comes at a cost. Whether you believe you’re the best in the world or the worst in the world, one thing is also true: you are separate from the world.
And it’s this separateness that ultimately perpetuates unnecessary suffering.²⁸
NEWTON’S THIRD LAW OF EMOTION
Your Identity Will Stay Your Identity Until a New Experience Acts Against It
Here’s a common sob story. Boy cheats on girl. Girl is heartbroken. Girl despairs. Boy leaves girl, and girl’s pain lingers for years afterward. Girl feels like shit about herself. And in order for her Feeling Brain to maintain hope, her Thinking Brain must pick one of two explanations. She can believe either that (a) all boys are shit or (b) she is shit.²⁹
Well, shit. Neither of those is a good option.
But she decides to go with option (a), “all boys are shit,” because, after all, she still has to live with herself. This choice isn’t made consciously, mind you. It just kind of happens.³⁰
Jump ahead a few years. Girl meets another boy. This boy isn’t shit. In fact, this boy is the opposite of shit. He’s pretty rad. And sweet. And cares. Like, really, truly cares.
But girl is in a conundrum. How can this boy be real? How can he be true? After all, she knows that all boys are shit. It’s true. It must be true; she has the emotional scars to prove it.
Sadly, the realization that this boy is not shit is too painful for girl’s Feeling Brain to handle, so she convinces herself that he is, indeed, shit. She nitpicks his tiniest flaws. She notices every errant word, every misplaced gesture, every awkward touch. She zeroes in on his most insignificant mistakes until they stand bright in her mind like a flashing strobe light screaming, “Run away! Save yourself!”
So, she does. She runs. And she runs in the most horrible of ways. She leaves him for another boy. After all, all boys are shit. So, what’s trading one piece of shit for another? It means nothing.
Boy is heartbroken. Boy despairs. The pain lingers for years and morphs into shame. And this shame puts the boy in a tough position. Because now his Thinking Brain must make a choice: either (a) all girls are shit or (b) he is shit.
Our values aren’t just collections of feelings. Our values are stories.
When our Feeling Brain feels something, our Thinking Brain sets to work constructing a narrative to explain that something. Losing your job doesn’t just suck; you’ve constructed an entire narrative around it: Your asshole boss wronged you after years of loyalty! You gave yourself to that company! And what did you get in return?
Our narratives are sticky, clinging to our minds and hanging onto our identities like tight, wet clothes. We carry them around with us and define ourselves by them. We trade narratives with others, looking for people whose narratives match our own. We call these people friends, allies, good people. And those who carry narratives that contradict our own? We call them evil.
Our narratives about ourselves and the world are fundamentally about (a) something or someone’s value and (b) whether that something/someone deserves that value. All narratives are constructed in this way:
Bad thing happens to person/thing, and he/she/it doesn’t deserve it.
Good thing happens to person/thing, and he/she/it doesn’t deserve it.
Good thing happens to person/thing, and he/she/it deserves it.
Bad thing happens to person/thing, and he/she/it deserves it.
Every book, myth, fable, history—all human meaning that’s communicated and remembered is merely the daisy-chaining of these little value-laden narratives, one after the other, from now until eternity.³¹
These narratives we invent for ourselves around what’s important and what’s not, what is deserving and what is not—these stories stick with us and define us, they determine how we fit ourselves into the world and with each other. They determine how we feel about ourselves—whether we deserve a good life or not, whether we deserve to be loved or not, whether we deserve success or not—and they define what we know and understand about ourselves.
This network of value-based narratives is our identity. When you think to yourself, I’m a pretty bad-ass boat captain, har-de-har, that is a narrative you’ve constructed to define yourself and to know yourself. It’s a component of your walking, talking self that you introduce to others and plaster all over your Facebook page. You captain boats, and you do it damn well, and therefore you deserve good things.
But here’s the funny thing: when you adopt these little narratives as your identity, you protect them and react emotionally to them as though they were an inherent part of you. The same way that getting punched will cause a violent emotional reaction, someone coming up and saying you’re a shitty boat captain will produce a similarly negative emotional reaction, because we react to protect the metaphysical body just as we protect the physical.
Our identities snowball through our lives, accumulating more and more values and meaning as they tumble along. You are close with your mom growing up, and that relationship brings you hope, so you construct a story in your mind that comes to partly define you, just as your thick hair or your brown eyes or your creepy toenails define you. Your mom is a huge part of your life. Your mom is an amazing woman. You owe everything to your mom . . . and other shit people say at the Academy Awards. You then protect that piece of your identity as if it were a part of you. Someone comes along and talks shit about your mom, and you absolutely lose your mind and start breaking things.
Then that experience creates a new narrative and new value in your mind. You, you decide, have anger issues . . . especially around your mother. And now that becomes an inherent part of your identity.
And on and on it goes.
The longer we’ve held a value, the deeper inside the snowball it is and the more fundamental it is to how we see ourselves and how we see the world. Like interest on a bank loan, our values compound over time, growing stronger and coloring future experiences. It’s not just the bullying from when you were in grade school that fucks you up. It’s the bullying plus all the self-loathing and narcissism you brought to decades worth of future relationships, causing them all to fail, that adds up over time.
Psychologists don’t know much for certain,³² but one thing they definitely do know is that childhood trauma fucks us up.³³ This “snowball effect” of early values is why our childhood experiences, both good and bad, have long-lasting effects on our identities and generate the fundamental values that go on to define much of our lives. Your early experiences become your core values, and if your core values are fucked up, they create a domino effect of suckage that extends through the years, infecting experiences large and small with their toxicity.
When we’re young, we have tiny and fragile identities. We’ve experienced little. We’re completely dependent on our caretakers for everything, and inevitably, they’re going to mess it up. Neglect or harm can cause extreme emotional reactions, resulting in large moral gaps that are never equalized. Dad walks out, and your three-year-old Feeling Brain decides that you were never lovable in the first place. Mom abandons you for some rich new husband, and you decide that intimacy doesn’t exist, that no one can ever be trusted.
No wonder Newton was such a cranky loner.³⁴
And the worst thing is, the longer we’ve held onto these narratives, the less aware we are that we have them. They become the background noise of our thoughts, the interior decoration of our minds. Despite being arbitrary and completely made up, they seem not only natural but inevitable.³⁵
The values we pick up throughout our lives crystallize and form a sediment on top of our personality.³⁶ The only way to change our values is to have experiences contrary to our values. And any attempt to break free from those values through new or contrary experiences will inevitably be met with pain and discomfort.³⁷ This is why there is no such thing as change without pain, no growth without discomfort. It’s why it is impossible to become someone new without first grieving the loss of who you used to be.
Because when we lose our values, we grieve the death of those defining narratives as though we’ve lost a part of ourselves—because we have lost a part of ourselves. We grieve the same way we would grieve the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, a house, a community, a spiritual belief, or a friendship. These are all defining, fundamental parts of you. And when they are torn away from you, the hope they offered your life is also torn away, leaving you exposed, once again, to the Uncomfortable Truth.
There are two ways to heal yourself—that is, to replace old, faulty values with better, healthier values. The first is to reexamine the experiences of your past and rewrite the narratives around them. Wait, did he punch me because I’m an awful person; or is he the awful person?
Reexamining the narratives of our lives allows us to have a do-over, to decide: you know, maybe I wasn’t such a great boat captain after all, and that’s fine. Often, with time, we realize that what we used to believe was important about the world actually isn’t. Other times, we extend the story to get a clearer view of our self-worth—oh, she left me because some asshole left her and she felt ashamed and unworthy around intimacy—and suddenly, that breakup is easier to swallow.
The other way to change your values is to begin writing the narratives of your future self, to envision what life would be like if you had certain values or possessed a certain identity. By visualizing the future we want for ourselves, we allow our Feeling Brain to try on those values for size, to see what they feel like before we make the final purchase. Eventually, once we’ve done this enough, the Feeling Brain becomes accustomed to the new values and starts to believe them.
This sort of “future projection” is usually taught in the worst of ways. “Imagine you’re fucking rich and own a fleet of yachts! Then it will come true!”³⁸
Sadly, that kind of visualization is not replacing a current unhealthy value (materialism) with a better one. It’s just masturbating to your current value. Real change would entail fantasizing what not wanting yachts in the first place would feel like.
Fruitful visualization should be a little bit uncomfortable. It should challenge you and be difficult to fathom. If it’s not, then it means that nothing is changing.
The Feeling Brain doesn’t know the difference between past, present, and future; that’s the Thinking Brain’s domain.³⁹ And one of the strategies our Thinking Brain uses to nudge the Feeling Brain into the correct lane of life is asking “what if” questions: What if you hated boats and instead spent your time helping disabled kids? What if you didn’t have to prove anything to the people in your life for them to like you? What if people’s unavailability has more to do with them than it does with you?
Other times, you can just tell your Feeling Brain stories that might or might not be true but that feel true. Jocko Willink, former Navy SEAL and author, writes in his book Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual that he wakes up at four thirty every morning because he imagines his enemy is somewhere out there in the world.⁴⁰ He doesn’t know where, but he assumes that his enemy wants to kill him. And he realizes that if he’s awake before his enemy, that gives him an advantage. Willink developed this narrative for himself while serving in the Iraq War, where there were actual enemies who did want to kill him. But he has maintained that narrative since returning to civilian life.
Objectively, the narrative Willink creates for himself makes no fucking sense. Enemy? Where? But figuratively, emotionally, it is incredibly powerful. Willink’s Feeling Brain still buys into it, and it still gets Willink up every damn morning before some of us are done drinking from the night before. That is the illusion of self-control.
Without these narratives—without developing a clear vision of the future we desire, of the values we want to adopt, of the identities we want to shed or step into—we are forever doomed to repeat the failures of our past pain. The stories of our past define our identity. The stories of our future define our hopes. And our ability to step into those narratives and live them, to make them reality, is what gives our lives meaning.
Emo Newton sat alone in his childhood bedroom. It was dark outside. He didn’t know how long he had been awake, what time it was, or what day it was. He had been alone and working for weeks now. Food that his family had left for him sat uneaten by the door, rotting.
He took out a blank piece of paper and drew a large circle on it. He then marked points along the edges of the circle and, with dotted lines, indicated the pull of each dot toward the center. Beneath this, he wrote, “There is an emotional gravity to our values: we attract those into our orbit who value the same things we do, and instinctively repel, as if by reverse magnetism, those whose values are contrary to our own.⁴¹ These attractions form large orbits of like-minded people around the same principle. Each falls along the same path, circling and revolving around the same cherished thing.”
He then drew another circle, adjacent to the first. The two circles’ edges nearly touched. From there, he drew lines of tension between the edges of each circle, the places where the gravity pulled in both directions, disrupting the perfect symmetry of each orbit. He then wrote:
“Large swaths of people coalesce together, forming tribes and communities based on the similar evaluations of their emotional histories. You, sir, may value science. I, too, value science. Therefore, there is an emotional magnetism between us. Our values attract one another and cause us to fall perpetually into each other’s orbit, in a metaphysical dance of friendship. Our values align, and our cause becomes one!
“But! Let’s say that one gentleman sees value in Puritanism and another in Anglicanism. They are inhabitants of two closely related yet different gravities. This causes each to disrupt the other’s orbit, cause tension within the value hierarchies, challenge the other’s identity, and thus generate negative emotions that will push them apart and put their causes at odds.
“This emotional gravity, I declare, is the fundamental organization of all human conflict and endeavor.”
At this, Isaac took out another page and drew a series of circles of differing sizes. “The stronger we hold a value,” he wrote, “that is, the stronger we determine something as superior or inferior than all else, the stronger its gravity, the tighter its orbit, and the more difficult it is for outside forces to disrupt its path and purpose.⁴²
“Our strongest values therefore demand either the affinity or the antipathy of others—the more people there are who share some value, the more those people begin to congeal and organize themselves into a single, coherent body around that value: scientists with scientists, clergy with clergy. People who love the same thing love each other. People who hate the same thing also love each other. And people who love or hate different things hate each other. All human systems eventually reach equilibrium by clustering and conforming into constellations of mutually shared value systems—people come together, altering and modifying their own personal narratives until their narratives are one and the same, and the personal identity thus becomes the group identity.
“Now, you may be saying, ‘But, my good man, Newton! Don’t most people value the same things? Don’t most people simply want a bit of bread and a safe place to sleep at night?’ And to that, I say you are correct, my friend!
“All peoples are more the same than they are different. We all mostly want the same things out of life. But those slight differences generate emotion, and emotion generates a sense of importance. Therefore, we come to perceive our differences as disproportionately more important than our similarities. And this is the true tragedy of man. That we are doomed to perpetual conflict over the slight difference.⁴³
“This theory of emotional gravitation, the coherence and attraction of like values, explains the history of peoples.⁴⁴ Different parts of the world have different geographic factors. One region may be hard and rugged and well defended from invaders. Its people would then naturally value neutrality and isolation. This would then become their group identity. Another region may overflow with food and wine, and its people would come to value hospitality, festivities, and family. This, too, would become their identity. Another region may be arid and a difficult place to live, but with wide-open vistas connecting it to many distant lands, its people would come to value authority, strong military leadership, and absolute dominion. This, too, is their identity.⁴⁵
“And just as the individual protects her identity through beliefs, rationalizations, and biases, communities, tribes, and nations protect their identities the same way.⁴⁶ These cultures eventually solidify themselves into nations, which then expand, bringing more and more peoples into the umbrella of their value systems. Eventually, these nations will bump up against each other, and the contradictory values will collide.
“Most people do not value themselves above their cultural and group values. Therefore, many people are willing to die for their highest values—for their family, their loved ones, their nation, their god. And because of this willingness to die for their values, these collisions of culture will inevitably result in war.⁴⁷
“War is but a terrestrial test of hope. The country or people who have adopted values that maximize the resources and hopes of its peoples the best will inevitably become the victor. The more a nation conquers neighboring peoples, the more the people of that conquering nation come to feel that they deserve to dominate their fellow men, and the more they will see their nation’s values as the true guiding lights of humanity. The supremacy of those winning values then lives on, and the values are written up and lauded in our histories, and go on to be retold in stories, passed down to give future generations hope. Eventually, when those values cease to be effective, they will lose out to the values of another, newer nation, and history will continue on, a new era unfolding.
“This, I declare, is the form of human progress.”
Newton finished writing. He placed his theory of emotional gravitation on the same stack with his three Laws of Emotion and then paused to reflect on his discoveries.
And in that quiet, dark moment, Isaac Newton looked at the circles on the page and had an upsetting realization: he had no orbit. Through years of trauma and social failure, he had voluntarily separated himself from everything and everyone, like a lone star flung on its own trajectory, unobstructed and uninfluenced by the gravitational pull of any system.
He realized that he valued no one—not even himself—and this brought him an overwhelming sense of loneliness and grief, because no amount of logic and calculation could ever compensate for the gnawing desperation of his Feeling Brain’s never-ending struggle to find hope in this world.
I would love to tell you that Parallel Universe Newton, or Emo Newton, overcame his sadness and solitude. I would love to tell you that he learned to value himself and others. But like our universe’s Isaac Newton, Parallel Universe Newton would spend the rest of his days alone, grumpy, and miserable.
The questions both Newtons answered that summer of 1666 had perplexed philosophers and scientists for generations. Yet, in a matter of a few months, this cantankerous, antisocial twenty-three-year-old had uncovered the mystery, had cracked the code. And there, on the frontiers of intellectual discovery, he tossed his findings aside to a musty and forgotten corner of a cramped study, in a remote backwater village a day’s ride north of London.
And there, his discoveries would remain, hidden to the world, collecting dust.⁴⁸