This morning, I will have the pleasure of Skyping with two classes of rising 9th graders who have read WOOL. I only have thirty minutes with each class, and I’m already bracing for impact. There’s a question I expect to hear from them, one that could consume hours of boring philosophical dialogue, so I’m heading that off at the pass with a little blog entry for anyone to read and fall asleep to at their leisure.
In the WOOL universe, the most confounding mystery (even to its inhabitants) is the question of: Why do they clean? Why do those sent outside, banished, given a death sentence, do this final act of kindness before they go?
Isn’t this the mystery, though, of our own lives? In two weeks, I, ZOMBIE will be unleashed upon the world. It also wrestles with this question of free will and why we do things we either swear we won’t or wish we wouldn’t. How many of us sit down to be productive, sit down to write, sort bills, do homework or finish a project, and we find ourselves browsing the web or staring at Facebook, instead? We said we wouldn’t. We promised ourselves. And yet, there we are, doing something we know we’ll feel guilty about later, not truly in charge of ourselves.
I don’t know what world awaits these rising 9th graders, but when I was a freshmen, we could count on being thrown into bushes. Why schools planted bushes with prickly points, I’ll never know. They must be a bunch of sadists. Every year, without fail, freshmen were thrown into bushes. And every year, without fail, freshmen vowed to not be dicks when they were seniors. And every year, without fail, another class of juniors became a class of seniors who forgot the promises they made when they were freshmen.
They were sent out to clean, promised they wouldn’t but something changed along the way. They got distracted. They saw the world in a different light. They crossed a boundary, had new chemicals soar through their veins, and now they can’t *not* clean.
The Stanford Prison Guard experiment of 1971 bore this out, and it’s one of the saddest truths of the human condition that I’ve ever run across. In the experiment, a group of volunteers were divided into “prisoners” and “guards.” The latter were put in charge of the former. What happened next was disturbing. Guards became abusive and prisoners meek. Within days, the verbal and physical violence grew horrific. But what happened next was truly stunning. They switched the two groups around. And soon, the behaviors were reversed. Former prisoners, knowing how horrible it felt to be abused, did it nonetheless. I imagine they would have promised, sitting behind those bars, that they would be different. But they can’t be. They can’t *not* clean.
Have you heard of the “Curse of the Lotto?” There have been countless stories, both popular-media sensational accounts and more formal sociological ones, that study the often horrible outcomes that befall lottery winners. And it isn’t just that family members swarm the luck-stricken; it’s also the changes in behavior and mentality that the winners suffer. All the promises of writing checks for millions of dollars to everyone they know suddenly vanish when the impossible happens. They said they wouldn’t be this person. They would invest and be smart with their money. But they rarely do. They are a different person before winning the lottery than they are afterward. They’ve been sent to clean, have crossed the Rubicon, and what once puzzled them about others now makes perfect sense. They are watching themselves do it, justifying it in their own minds with reasons and excuses, but that’s not truly why. They couldn’t *not* do it.
One of the best books I read last year was WILLPOWER, which looked into our inability to take control of our behavior. The best chapter was on Oprah, who has been very open and public about her battle with obesity. Think about this: Oprah is one of the hardest working and driven people on the planet. Her work ethic is second to none. She busts her butt every day doing a thousand different things. She has all the money in the world to throw at this problem, which has meant hiring personal trainers (the best in the world) private chefs (ditto) nutritionists (again, the top of the heap). What does all her power, wealth, and motivation bring her? The same cycle of diet and binging we all go through. She has the longest lever imaginable, and still she cannot budge that stone.
We like to think we’ll be different when we face certain challenges. We’ll exercise more as we get older. We’ll be better to our parents and our children. We’ll be nicer to those beneath us when we are given power at work, at home, at school. We’ll work harder for those who manage us. We’ll be gracious in defeat and humble in victory. We’ll be good people, better than those who give us pause about the human condition.
Alas, we all think these things. We make promises. But when we are sent to clean, when we have our moment, what do we do? Forget what you think you would do. Stop for a moment. Stop pretending and go look at every study made on the subject. Look at Oprah. Look at every person addicted to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or time-wasters like video games and social networks. Look at the self-loathing. We don’t do these things because they make us happy; we do them in spite of the fact that they make us miserable. That’s because the part of our brains, the reptilian part that’s millions of years old where chemical happiness lies, is different from the newer part where more self-aware joys reside. And we are slaves to our chemical happiness, not to our conscious happiness.
If you hook a rat up to a machine that gives its pleasure center a little jolt of electricity when it presses a button (yes, scientists do this sort of thing), guess what the rat does? It presses the button until it dies. It forgoes food, water, and sex, the three stronger drives out there, the ones we would perish and go extinct without, just to taste that chemical joy at the middle of our most primitive brains.
Those rats are cleaning. If you look around, you spend a good part of your own day cleaning. Come late December, we will make promises. We will sit in that tiny cell of time between Christmas and the New Year and we will make promises. We will say that we’ll exercise more, diet more, eat more healthily, be more productive, be better to our friends and family … but we won’t.
And maybe that’s why so many readers reject the conclusions WOOL comes to. Because the fatalistic truth is too painful to bear. So we lie to ourselves rather than bare our teeth and attack this truth head-on. We cower from it rather than be bold against it. You know what? I clean all the damn time. And I hate myself for it. But I’ve found more strength and have won more victories over these urges by studying them, by understanding them, by knowing what takes place and why. It’s how I quit smoking, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It’s how I get up every morning to write, when there’s no one there forcing me to.
I am a weak person. I know this about myself. I have spent countless hours playing video games and putting off exercise. I smoked a pack a day for fifteen years, and I hated almost every one of those cigarettes. I didn’t try hard enough at most everything I’ve done, from soccer and my studies in high school to almost everything I’ve tackled since. Left to my own devices, I’d probably sleep my life away or waste it on frivolities. And not because I truly *want* to, but because a small part of my brain wants me to.
It wants me to clean. And dammit, maybe I will. But knowing this about myself gives me the best chance that I have to beat the sucker.