The Law of Striving
The universe only has a few laws, and one of them is the Law of Striving. This law dictates that when we strive for an end result we will either push it away or ruin it in its achievement. This isn’t a new discovery. The Greeks said, “When the gods wish to destroy a man, they first give him what he strives for.” And this isn’t a western civilization discovery either. Buddhism’s second noble truth is that the origin of suffering is striving. In fact, you’ll find a version of this universal law in every long-standing culture you look at. I guess that’s why it’s a universal law.
But so what? It’s old, and a whole bunch of old people believed it. What does that have to do with me? What does it have to do with now?
Let’s take some more modern examples. If you’re playing receiver in football you’re goal is to catch the ball. But everyone wants to make a touchdown. If you strive for the touchdown and take your attention away from the ball and toward the goal line you're not going to catch the ball.
Here’s another. If you are driving, the goal is to safely get from one point to another. But if you take your mind off of the safety of the moment and strive only to get to your goal, you’ll be much more likely to crash and never make it.
The same thing applies to money. We often look at wealthy people and think they had wealth as a goal. We think they strove for that wealth, and we think that we can be that wealthy if we strive as well. That's not how it works. I’ve had the opportunity to study the lives of several wealthy people and rarely was wealth the goal, and when it was, it was ruined in its acquisition. What most happy wealthy people were doing wasn’t striving for wealth. They were pursuing a goal on a step by step basis, staying in the now, and not striving for wealth.
The same thing happens in psychotherapy. If a therapist strives to get the patient to a certain point, they are thinking of that point and are no longer even with the patient. In that state, they cannot help at all.
It really doesn’t matter what endeavor you look at, the Law of Striving will rear it’s head. Recently, I’ve watched a controversy in Addiction Medicine and our larger society that recalled to me the Law of Striving.
You’ve probably heard that the CDC has declared that we have an opioid overdose epidemic. You’ve probably heard on the news of a number of different medical treatments for addiction involving opioids and opioid overdoses. One of these is called naloxone, a strong opioid receptor blocker that can reverse an overdose if given in sufficient dose quickly enough.
Because it needs to be used quickly, some propose making naloxone freely available over the counter so that all who use opioids and their families can have as much of it available as they need. Others argue that making naloxone available will actually keep people with addiction away from treatment and recovery because they will feel they’ll be able to more safely continue using. This latter argument is that we should strive for a better solution and not lessen the risk of death and the natural consequences of opioid use. Well, you probably have figured out what I’m going to say next.
We only live in this now. Not that one, back there when you were reading the first sentence in this paragraph, this one, right here, right now. Yeah, this one. And only living in the now, we don’t get to predict the future. We don’t get to know completely the consequences of our actions or those of others. We don’t get to say, “If I do this then he’ll do that and then I’ll react this way and then she’ll do this other thing.” That’s not real. We made that up. What’s real is now. And now, we have a choice.
Do we increase the chances of someone’s being alive tomorrow or not? Do we choose not to because to do so might increase someone else’s chances of not going to treatment the next day?
The Law of Striving tells us that we cannot successfully strive for a perfect future solution. We have to stay in the now and do what is in front of us. I’ve been doing addiction treatment for a long time, and I’ve never seen a dead person walk in for treatment. It’s the single most important thing for us to remember. Dead people don’t recover. Call it another universal law if you want, because it’s true in every culture and every time. If you’re dead, you can’t recover.
So as we struggle to find what is the right thing for us to do as a society, we should remember that we are here now with people who may live or die today. What they choose to do tomorrow or next week or next year is unknown. What we do know is that if they die of an overdose today, their chances of going to treatment tomorrow are zero. There’s no way past that, no matter how hard you strive.