Each man has limited resources to act. The primary limitation on man’s ability to act is time. Because man’s resource of time is limited, the laws of nature dictate that man cannot act both for and against a single end at the same time. Therefore we are forced to decide what actions to lay aside and what actions to undertake. In other words, we choose what desires have precedence over another given our inability to pursue all of them with our limited time. This process literally occurs in every moment of conscious human life.
A man’s actions are dictated by his perception of what will result in the most desired outcome. A man will always choose the action that he perceives will result in achieving that which he values most. An action might be perceived to produce the most friends, the most money, the best health, the coolest car, the most fame, the clearest mind, the most favor with God, the best defense from evil, the least chance of death, the least chance of sickness etc. We as humans may have our eyes on many goals at once and believe that if we direct our actions in a certain self-imposed manor that we will achieve pleasure. Each of us is responsible to determine what ends are worth our pursuit.
It may be perceive by a man that to give all his money to the poor is in his best interest if by doing so he would find favor with his God. It may also be perceived by another man that the money he has worked for is his and his best interest will be properly served if he holds onto that money for himself. There may at times be very different perceptions of the route to pleasure that leads different men to take opposite actions when faced with the same decision. Whether man is focused on himself in either example is not to be questioned, for even the man who gives his money to the poor does so with the belief that he stands to gain that which he most seeks: favor with God. Just as the man who keeps the money does so with the belief that in doing so he will gain what he most seeks, whatever that may be.
From the time we are children we learn to act in a manner that will cause less pain.
Parents teach the child not to touch the hot stove or to choose the fruit over the candy. The idea that the outcome of one choice over another will result in more pleasure and less pain is instilled in each of us from the time we are born.
We generally act on the notion of what will bring the most pleasure immediately over what will generate the best long-term outcome. There may very well be a huge overlap here. Some actions believed to benefit the short-term, may also be perceived to bring about long-term pleasure. However, there is the possibility that the two conflict one another. In such a situation I believe man mostly tends to act on the immediate perception of benefit over the long-term.
An example of such a conflict occurs in addiction. Addiction hijacks a person’s sense of pleasure and can alter the addict’s desires and as a result the actions they pursue. When faced with the decision to smoke a cigarette, the smoker perceives that acting on that impulse will bring about pleasure and that denying that impulse will bring about pain. The desire for long-term health is trumped by the desire for short-term satisfaction that the cigarette has come to provide. The desire to smoke now trumps the desire to be healthy tomorrow. Despite the evidence that smoking is bad for the smoker’s health, and that continued smoking is without a doubt not in the best interest of the smoker, the addict is confronted with the dilemma of short-term pain vs. long-term pleasure. As long as the desire for short-term pleasure is held in higher regard than long-term pleasure, as long as the most desired outcome is short-term pleasure and not long-term health, the self-destructive actions of the addict will continue.
In each moment the addict is faced with the choice to either act in his short-term best interest or his long-term best interest. There is little doubt that the addict knows the possible consequences of denying the long-term in favor of the short-term, however, the conflict of thoughts as the brain tries to figure out what action to take in any given moment can be overwhelming. The part of the brain that seeks pleasure and decides what is pleasurable holds enormous sway over the part of the rational long-term part of the brain. These two parts of our consciousness are at war during the moments leading up to the chosen course of action.
In order to overcome an addiction the misguided perception of short-term pleasure has to be diminished in favor of an alternate short-term perception of pleasure that does not have perceived long-term consequences. The smoker must desire an alternate action and perceive that alternate action as having the potential for more immediate pleasure to change the course of the addiction. For if the addict truly believed that eating an apple would deliver more immediate satisfaction than smoking the cigarette the choice would be made without hesitation to act on the impulse to eat the apple rather than the impulse to smoke.
Because we cannot act on each impulse given the constraint of time, we will favor the most desired. How do we alter our perception of what is most desirable to us? It takes a change of mind. We must alter our thoughts and work to rewire the perception of what is pleasurable. The smoker must come to a point where they see the act of smoking a cigarette as less desirable than not. The cigarette and the addictive chemicals in it have worked within the pleasure centers of the brain, over time teaching the smoker that it is pleasurable to act on the smoking impulse. It has indeed hijacked the brains ability to determine for itself what is pleasurable. No one enjoys his or her first cigarette. It can be painful to smoke and you’ll cough and choke that first cigarette down. But the action to do so was dictated by some perception of pleasure. Perhaps the perception that by smoking there would be increased acceptance by friends who smoke. Whatever the case may be we can be sure that what we perceive as having the most desirable outcome is what we will act on.
It is very important that we learn to analyze impulses as they occur, and see what the perceived pleasure is behind that impulse. Then we can determine if the immediate pleasure is really worth acting on or if the perception of the pleasure to come is really even true or not.
The things we seek to provide ourselves with happiness are all short-lived. Fame and money may provide a person with self-worth and pleasure for a time but they will inevitably need more money and more friends to maintain that sense of happiness. It seems to me that what we focus on as being the source of our pleasure is what dictates our decisions on what to act on and what to pass by.
Things of this world are fleeting and Satan has many enticing offers to lure us in to acting in a way that will ensnare us. The sooner we learn that the happiness and pleasure, the peace and contentment, and the joy in life that we’ve been seeking come only from a relationship with Jesus Christ, the better we’ll be at fending off the impulses that we perceive as leading to pleasure for the ones that truly have both short-term and long-term significance. I believe that Jesus Christ offers to everyone the one thing that we long for, a perception of the best possible outcome in our lives both in the short-term and the long-term, guidance in our perception of what are worthwhile actions, and the ability to trust in him for our self-worth aside from our inability to choose the best path all the time.