When I was in high school, my science class took a field trip to Griffith Park Observatory (the one in La La Land and Rebel Without a Cause). The highlight was the Planetarium Show: We leaned back and emitted a communal “Oooooo!” as the dome darkened and a giant tinkertoy projected the heavens above us. Our nasal-voiced host tapped his mic and said, “Space! When we gaze upon it, we cannot help but wonder, ‘Are we unique?’” Then a surfer kid named Greg shouted, “I don’t know about us, dude, but you are!” And our Oooos turned to laughter. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder…
Are we unique? A barrage of voices has answered in the negative. Darwin informed us that we’re here by chance. Freud insisted our religious impulses were merely mass neuroses. Pavlov and Skinner showed us our behaviors were nothing more than programmed responses.
Is that all we are? We do perform automatic behaviors. When our car approaches a traffic signal, our programming kicks in: green means go, red means stop, yellow means go really fast. We even press our foot down when a red light appears on our television–to stop our couch from running into the entertainment center.
Do we ever make conscious choices? Or is choice merely an illusion? 75% of child abusers were abused as children. A huge percentage of addicts were raised by addicts. Divorce is the norm for those who come from broken homes (when asked if her eighth husband was “the one,” Elizabeth Taylor replied, “Of course. They always are”).
We’re programmed—for good and for bad—in a multitude of ways. But we are more than brainstems and pituitary glands. More than instinct. More than programming. Human beings are (cue horror movie music) The Creatures with Two Brains!
At puberty, the two nearly identical halves of the human cerebrum begin to function like separate brains (this only happens in humans). There are a lot of ramifications, but one of the most intriguing is this: We talk to ourselves.
If you’re thinking, “I don’t do that,” guess what? You just did. We all do. Thanks to the fact that we have a spare brain, we’re able to think, to reason with ourselves. Which is why, throughout human history, puberty has been recognized not only as the beginning of adulthood, but as the age of “moral accountability.” At puberty we go beyond our programming and become capable of being our own programmers!
Yet few ever fully own this capability. They get the puberty blues and refuse to choose! Why? Because it’s hard. It’s so much easier to continue to be programmed–by society, movies, pop culture, impulses, habits, stimulants–to simply go with the flow. Jesus warned that this “broad way” leads to destruction, to the loss of our humanity, and yet many end up on it. But “the way that leads to life,” he says, “is narrow and few choose it.” (Matthew 7:13-14). Notice, he didn’t say that many choose the broad way, because they don’t. No one chooses destruction. Instead, they allow the choice to made for them.
Most people believe what they live. Only a few live what they believe. Most base what they believe on the patterns they’ve fallen into (or been pushed into). Only a few struggle, no matter what the cost, to find the narrow path that leads to life.
But you can choose. You’re not Pavlov’s dog — you’re Pavlov — if you choose to be. Learn what’s true. Learn what’s right. And then choose to live what you believe. You are unique.
Live like it.