The Structures in Our Lives Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Structures in Our Lives

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We may try from time to time to make changes in our lifestyle, our habits, our relationships, our careers, our physical fitness and so on - yet we often seem after a while to have come full circle, and we end up pretty much where we started from. Why is it that most of our New Year resolutions seem to have fizzled out long before Easter comes round? How come our great efforts of willpower can bring about temporary changes but rarely anything permanent?

The Creative Impulse

There is a belief that human beings have a built-in resistance to change, as if we have some instinct to maintain the status quo and keep ourselves stuck where we are. But while this may be true for some individuals, many if not most of us also have a stronger desire. This is the overriding desire to innovate, to bring about something entirely new, to contribute to the world something worthwhile of our own, to be responsible for producing something life-enhancing. We have a deep-seated yearning to create, whether it is a poem, a baby, a career, a relationship or an h2g2 Guide Entry.

We also want to improve the quality of our lives on various levels, and often wish to get rid of unwanted habits, tendencies and circumstances that do not serve us well. So we start out filled with resolve and determination and fine intentions, mustering all our willpower to give up tobacco or cut down on alcohol or find a life partner or learn Japanese, and sure enough we will often experience some initial success. One would think that this would reinforce our initial zeal and spur us on to greater achievements, and in some cases it does, but all too often it seems to make little difference and after a while we find ourselves more or less back where we started. Names and places may have changed, but the overall picture is much the same as before.

The time-frame of such patterns of starting out, experiencing initial success, but eventually ending up with little if any improvement, is variable. It could be weeks, months or years, but as time goes on we begin to see certain patterns repeating themselves regularly. For example, we may notice that we seem to have moved house every four years or so, or have started a new relationship about every seven months, or got a new job every 18 months, and so on.

The Importance of Structure

The Millennium Bridge is a public footbridge across the river Thames in the heart of London, UK. It is of innovative design, a state-of-the-art suspension bridge and a joy to the eye, which opened to the public in June 2000. It was carefully designed and constructed after detailed computer modelling and extensive research and testing programmes, and yet as soon as it opened problems became apparent. With a large number of people trying to cross, the bridge wobbled alarmingly in a sideways motion, making the experience thoroughly unpleasant or even hazardous1 . It was closed again in short order, and the thinking-caps went on. It wasn't working as it should, and something had to be done about it.

What should be done? The bridge was fine until a lot of people started using it. Logically, then, there must be something about the behaviour of the people that was causing the problem. The solution should therefore be to alter that behaviour. Perhaps the numbers of people crossing at any one time should be controlled. Perhaps people should be allowed to cross in one direction only at any one time. Perhaps the numbers of people crossing in both directions should be balanced...

Of course, we can see that the best way of tackling the problem is what they actually did, which was to alter the structure of the bridge so that the wobble was stabilised, whatever members of the public might get up to. We can see that quite clearly, because a bridge is very obviously a structure, and if things aren't working out the best way to deal with that is to change or modify the structure which gives rise to the problem.

But very often, when we encounter problems in our lives, our initial impulse is not to change the underlying structure but to try to alter behaviour (our own or someone else's), not appreciating that behaviour is governed by structure. We are often even unaware of the structures that underlie our behaviour. Yet structure is a dominant factor in our lives. Even for most of those who believe they lead unstructured lives, structure is unavoidable. It is unavoidable because a desire to avoid structure can itself only operate within a structure, as will be seen.

Once we begin to gain insights into the structures we have set up in our lives, we can start to change or prioritise them. But until we start to deal in this way with our unwanted structures we will be unable to change the behaviour they give rise to, however much we wish to change and however hard we try. Instead we will probably find ourselves slipping back into our old unwanted patterns.

Fundamental Structures

There are certain fundamental structural principles at work in the universe, which everyone knows about but not many people think of in relation to their own lives. One fundamental principle is:

  • The flow of energy tends to take the line of least resistance.

When the Millennium Bridge first opened, the line of least resistance was for the bridge to wobble quite considerably when enough people walked across it. After the structure had been modified the line of least resistance was for it to wobble scarcely at all. People crossing the bridge didn't have to alter their behaviour to achieve the desired result - it's just that they were now operating within a structure that supported that behaviour rather than running counter to it. Once the structure of the bridge had been altered in an appropriate way, walking across it became easy, convenient and enjoyable, instead of something approaching an urban nightmare.

Another fundamental principle is:

  • Tension seeks resolution.

Simple Tension Systems

If there is something that we want but do not have, that sets up a tension. But people often dislike tension. They feel uncomfortable with tension in their life, and they have been brought up to believe that there is something wrong with feeling uncomfortable. Perhaps they have been taught that the purpose of life is the pursuit of happiness, and that discomfort is not compatible with happiness.

Likewise, if there is something in our life we dislike and want to get rid of, there is tension there too. In this type of structure the tension of the unfulfilled desire (we want what we do not have, or we want to get rid of something) is compounded by the tension of the tension thus created.

In such simple tension systems, even if multiple tensions are present they all seek the same point of resolution, so that when we have fulfilled our desire all the tensions are resolved.

Complex Tension Systems

But life is not always so simple. We may find that there are structures with multiple tensions where different tensions seek different resolutions. Indeed different tensions may seek competing resolutions.

A common enough tension seeking resolution is hunger. The easiest way to resolve the tension of hunger is to eat. But you may also be overweight (another tension system), and to resolve that you need to diet, or not eat. It is not possible to resolve both tensions (hunger and overweight) at the same time, since it is not possible to eat and not eat at the same time. This may be called a complex tension system.

In this system, as you begin to diet you reduce tension in the Overweight system but become more hungry, increasing tension in the Hunger system. This means in effect that the more successful you are initially at not eating and thereby losing weight, the greater the structural tendency for you to eat and thereby gain weight.

So whereas an overweight person deciding to go on a diet may have the appearance of taking appropriate action to bring about a desired result, in reality it may be that the action is being taken to try and get rid of the conflict, the tension caused by the tension.

Conversely, if you eat until your hunger is satisfied your weight will increase and so will the tension in the Overweight system, where the path of resolution is not to eat. So the more you eat and become overweight, the greater the structural tendency for you not to eat. At some point you are then likely to start dieting again, and the cycle continues.

Thus whatever action is taken tends only to reinforce the conflict, and will often eventually lead to a feeling of powerlessness. Since you are likely to feel uncomfortable with a feeling of powerlessness this will create another tension seeking resolution. Thus it can be seen how action taken with a view to reducing conflict will tend towards having the effect of perpetuating or even increasing the conflict.

A Dysfunctional Relationship

Marilyn and Peter (not their real names) are in love. Marilyn would be quite happy for Peter to become her life partner, but as a child she was always told she would never amount to anything, and she secretly still believes that. But Peter is to die for: rich, successful, good-looking, intelligent and a real Prince Charming.

Possibly in some sort of subconscious effort to reconcile this situation, Marilyn takes exception to one annoying habit of his. She just can't stand it. When she tells Peter about this he replies that he's always done that, it's not such a bad habit, and anyway nobody's perfect and why can't she accept him for what he is? She really doesn't want to lose him so she kicks herself mentally, and changes the subject.

But later, in the warm rosy afterglow of their love-making, when Marilyn is feeling really secure and cherished, she cannot resist just mentioning that habit again. Peter storms off in fury, and Marilyn dissolves in tears.

There seem to be several complex tension systems in play in this scenario.

There is the one involving Marilyn's wanting to get rid of something she dislikes, namely Peter's habit, while wanting to retain Peter's love. The more she mentions it, the more she risks alienating him, so she tries to ignore it. The more she ignores it the more loving the couple become, but as soon as she begins to feel really secure and loved again, 'that habit' begins to loom large once more, because it never really went away.

This system may be linked with another complex tension system Marilyn has, whereby on the one hand she really loves Peter and wants them to be fully committed to each other, yet on the other hand she believes she isn't good enough for him and they should both try to find someone else.

And we haven't yet considered Peter's side of this relationship.

Marilyn and Peter might stay together as a couple, still bickering with each other into old age. But the likelihood is that they will split up, neither of them understanding why the affair had to end this way.

Why Problem-solving Won't Work

Suppose, however, that Marilyn begins to gain some insight into her situation and starts to analyse the structures in play. She comes to realise that the root of her problem is really her central feeling of inadequacy, which leads her to believe that she can never have what she wants. She therefore sets out to solve the problem, as people tend to do.

She reasons that by ridding herself of this belief she can move forward. Unfortunately the problem-solving approach will not work in such cases. The desire to rid herself of an unwanted belief merely sets up another complex tension system. On the one hand she has strong feelings of inadequacy, the belief that she cannot have what she wants, which is a tension seeking resolution. On the other hand she tries by some means or other to convince herself that she can have what she wants.

But the structure here is the same as with her 'love/hate' relationship with Peter. As she starts to believe that she can have what she wants, that tension starts to resolve, but brings a corresponding increase in the tension associated with her central belief that she cannot have what she wants.

This will pull her in the opposite direction (ie towards the negative belief), so that she now starts to consider that her new-found belief in herself cannot be true. As she then begins to resolve the tension (by moving once more towards the conclusion that she cannot have what she wants), that will increase the desire to believe that she can have what she wants. And so on.

A Way Forward

It is natural to wish to resolve such complex tension structures, until you begin to understand why they are actually not resolvable. Taking action in an attempt to resolve the unresolvable will undoubtedly result in disappointment and possible disillusionment. This can only serve to reinforce the negative aspects of the structure, and could lead to the belief that things are hopeless.

In such systems the motive power behind the action taken is the relief of tension. But to the extent that the action starts to work, the tension is thereby reduced and therefore the motivation is reduced too. So the closer you get to the desired goal, the more difficult it becomes to make further progress in that direction. Moving in the opposite direction, where in any case the tension requiring resolution is now stronger, will take its turn as the more compelling option for the time being.

There is a way forward, but it will not be found by trying to combat or resolve the problem from within the structure that has given rise to it. What is needed is an entirely different perspective - not a problem-solving approach, but one which arises from and is supported by a structure of a different order.

The complex tension structures discussed above are oscillating systems. Like a child on a swing, you have the sensation of movement but you don’t actually go anywhere. If you can't get to where you want from where you are, you have to go somewhere else and start from there.

1The technical term coined for this type of motion is Synchronous Lateral Excitation. The experts probably call it SLE, but we just call it 'wobble'.

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