I’ve been reading Dickens’ Great Expectations, and there’s a lot for me to like in it. The thing I like the least, I’ve been thinking, is how some characters persist miserably in behavior that isn’t any good for them. Miss Havisham wallows for decade after decade in her anger and disappointment at being a jilted bride, and as she drifts ghost-like through her house in the rags of her wedding dress, I mentally shout at her, “What are you doing? Is this really what’s going to make you happy?”
And Pip, the main character, is worse: after being elevated to wealth by an unknown benefactor, he torments himself by pursuing a beautiful woman who makes him miserable, stops visiting the people who love him and make him happy because they’re beneath his station, and uses his wealth to run up huge debts by living beyond even his newly extravagant means. It makes me want to take him by the shoulders, shake him, and shout “Wake up! Why are you making yourself miserable?”
At least, it does until I realize how much I do the same things sometimes: maintaining a negative emotion because of having become attached to it, or spending huge effort pursuing an unworthy goal, or looking away from the difficult but ultimately more satisfying choices.
These are the patterns of most of our miseries, and there are five things we need to get through to go from there to a happier life:
- Awareness. We can’t do anything about our problems before we admit that they’re problems–which presumably is why admitting you have a problem is the foundational first step in twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.
- Belief. Pip believes there’s nothing he can do about his attraction to Estella, but in fact we have enormous influence over our own beliefs, preferences, and drives. Believing that our problems can be changed is more or less essential to purposely making that change.
- Knowledge. It doesn’t help to want to change if we don’t know what we want to stop doing and what we need to start doing instead. Understanding what success looks like, and how that differs from what we’re doing now, gets us from just wanting to change to being able to see what that change would be.
- Habit. Many of our behaviors are ingrained and will stay with us unless disrupted by accident or on purpose. Even if we know how we want to change our actions, we won’t act that way automatically: we need to build new habits and disrupt old ones. (Note: this long, hard-work phase is often skipped in novels and other stories, in which the realizations alone are sometimes portrayed as being enough. In real life, not so much.)
- Time and attention. Our resources are limited, including our time, strength, attention, and focus. Some of these resources need to be dedicated to making a change if a change is desired, and that generally means that they have to come from somewhere else.
Dickens being Dickens, I have a hard time imagining that Pip will come to a bad end. If he does win out in the end, I’ll be interested to see how he gets through these five steps (or at least the first three) to find his real strength.