Today was a day for Macdonald’s in France, which French people call MacDo. I feel super cool when I use the term MacDo even in the US, btws. French MacDonald’s does haven air of class to it that American MacDonald’s does not. It’s almost like an Applebees in terms of decor but you still have to order your food at the front, though sometimes they bring it to you at your table. This being France, of course the food is of higher quality, portions are smaller, and there are concerted efforts to have healthy food avalable. I really enjoy seeing how MickeyD’s has reinterpreted itself for France- it reminds me a little bit of myself 😉
It was also a time for a little identity-confirming comfort food on a gray Parisian autumn evening (Gosh doesn’t it sound romantic when you put it that way?). My b-school class on organizational behavior was all about how social and institutional context determines a huge amount of human behavior. My prof argued that personality doesn’t matter as much as group dynamics and our natural tendency to obey authority in shaping personality. He showed several famous psych experiments, like the Milgram experiment, Stanford prison experiment, and others to illustrate the extreme end of the point. He also believes that organizations are complex adaptive systems and planning in the long term is essentially useless, because social phenomena tend to emerge rather than go according to plan. After class, i asked him about the implications of his theory for politics and economics, and for two of the most important components of a happy life, love and work. I’ll spare you the politico-economic stuf, but basically he believes that life is random, and humans may try to make sense out of it but that doesn’t change the fact. Everything is part of a complex adaptive system, things emerge that can’t be predicted or easily plotted, and social phenomena are just too complex to follow any universal law like physical stuff follows the theory of relativity. He felt that he had just gotten lucky in his life, from meeting his wife to becoming a psychologist and then transitioning to a business career and that the only decision he made was to go back for a phd. In case you were secretly wondering his take on public policy, well, he obvs thinks that if we want less obesity and smoking, we need to make it hard to do those things aka banning Big Gulp is going to be more effective than any kind of awareness campaign or attempts to change the individual.
In case you haven’t noticed, I do like believing life makes some sort of sense and even randomness happens for a reason (pretty sure I’ve got that God gene), and it’s kind of a hobby to try and puzzle it out. Walking away from that chat though, I felt a lightness like I haven’t felt in a long time, if ever. Not everything is some kind of divine punishment or reward, maybe, or the law of attraction coming back to haunt or bless you. Notice how I put the negative before the positive lol. In a way, it was like my prayers had been answered. Sure, life is full of choices, but we have to play the hand we are dealt to an extent. Like I said, I don’t believe in radical randomness per se, and I do believe that we have some power to influence our environment (a smile is worth a thousand words, for instance), but it’s okay to not have a plan and to realize we don’t always have direct control of the things that happen to us. It is not a personal or species wide deficiency, it’s just the way things are. Many of my classmates really rejected the idea that individuals are so shaped by context, but the professor said the takeaway was that humans just are as they are, and it’s up to us to use that knowledge for good. My takeaway was that some individuals do react against their circumstances and have some kind of effect on them. There are people throughout the ages who hold on to their real selves in spite of great trauma (Martin Luther King, John McCain, Aung Song Su Kyi, Nelson Mandela, etc), and I think that living abroad, away from the roles and norms you have been accustomed to, shows who you really are and what you believe. Sure, you are predisposed to your background, no matter how open minded, but I think that the person you are when you are in some form of isolation from it (see being an expat in the French countryside) is a powerful experience of self-knowledge. We are more than just the roles we play, we are what we improvise on the script, and what remains of us even when the masks change.
Faced with the phenomena of life that are out of our control, random or unrandom, we create our lives with the choices we make. There is always existential freedom, no matter how strong the urge for social mammals is to conform. If we make choices based on our deepest values and truest knowledge of ourselves, I do believe we are infinitely more likely to enjoy the result, or at least the process. Though we are all just works in progress, we can and do choose many of the circumstances we find ourselves in, living in free societies no matter how strong social norms may be, and we do make choices within those contexts. Choose to be yourself. Choose, despite all odds and pressure, to create the life you truly want. Dare to dream, and choose wisely, which is not always practically. Practicality is a social norm that we can choose to discard and thereby rise above. We also create new social norms by influencing others- see how much easier it is to be yourself when you have a good friend with you who inspires you?
Given all this talk about public health campaigns and preventing obesity, and long term strategic planning and randomness, I dared to have a chocolate eclair on my way home. Why? Because it was delicious, I was/am in France, and I could. I thought about bringing it all the way home without eating it, since it was raining and there was no place to sit down. I decided to just eat it on the way since I didn’t want to condition myself to bring sweets into my apartment, but eat it with relish I did, while walking. Such an American. When I got home, I realized prayers are answered after all.
God does not play dice with the universe. -Albert Einstein
Love and gros bisous,