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“Holding brain science in one hand and rich emotional presence in the other, this book feels timely and necessary.”—Shauna Niequist, New York Times bestselling author of Present Over Perfect
Why is there such a gap between what you want to do and what you actually do? The host of Ask Science Mike explains why our desires and our real lives are so wildly different—and what you can do to close the gap.
For thousands of years, scientists, philosophers, and self-help gurus have wrestled with one of the basic conundrums of human life: Why do we do the things we do? Or, rather, why do we so often not do the things we want to do? As a podcast host whose voice goes out to millions each month, Mike McHargue gets countless emails from people seeking to understand their own misbehavior—why we binge on Netflix when we know taking a walk outside would be better for us, or why we argue politics on Facebook when our real friends live just down the street. Everyone wants to be a good person, but few of us, twenty years into the new millennium, have any idea how to do that.
In You’re a Miracle (and a Pain in the Ass), McHargue addresses these issues. We like to think we’re in control of our thoughts and decisions, he writes, but science has shown that a host of competing impulses, emotions, and environmental factors are at play in every action we undertake. Touching on his podcast listeners’ most pressing questions, from relationships and ethics to stress and mental health, and sharing some of the biggest triumphs and hardships from his own life, McHargue shows us how some of our qualities that seem most frustrating—including “negative” emotions like sadness, anger, and anxiety—are actually key to helping humans survive and thrive. In doing so, he invites us on a path of self-understanding and, ultimately, self-acceptance.
You’re a Miracle (and a Pain in the Ass) is a guided tour through the mystery of human consciousness, showing readers how to live more at peace with themselves in a complex world.
Why Did I Do That?
The Battle of You vs. You
The barrel of a shotgun tastes like pocket change and fireworks. The flavor is overwhelming, like a battery pressed to your tongue, though the taste and aroma are quickly matched by the discomfort of what it takes, physically, to put such an instrument in your mouth.
After placing the stock of the weapon on the ground, you lean forward and awkwardly bow your head, as if in prayer. If your goal is suicide—and it must be, or why else are you pointing a shotgun at your head?—you want to make sure as much shot as possible passes through your brain. So, still leaning forward, you lift your forehead into a less penitent posture. The result is pain, with the barrel smashing against your teeth and jabbing into the gums behind them.
Shotguns are called “long guns” for a reason. With the barrel in your mouth, you can’t reach the trigger while maintaining the critical head-to-barrel angle. My solution to this problem was improvised: I slipped off my right shoe and put my toe on the trigger. Doing so stretched my hip flexors uncomfortably and put strain on my knee. I’ve never liked pain, but I could cope with this discomfort. In a few seconds, I wouldn’t feel anything ever again.
I was sixteen years old, and tired of pain, rejection, and fear. My heart ached so much, and so constantly, that I didn’t want to have a heart anymore. So here I was, sitting in my parents’ bedroom with my father’s hunting gun in my mouth. I took a deep, smoky, metallic breath and pushed the trigger with my toe. . . .
I felt the clunk even more than I heard it. It reverberated through my teeth and into my skull.
I’ll never forget that feeling, the ultimate anticlimax. Confusion washed over me, bordering on panic. How was I alive? Turns out, I’d cocked the gun successfully but hadn’t loaded it right. I was saved by my ignorance of guns, and too afraid to try again. My heartbeat hit triple digits as I fell on the brown carpeted floors and sobbed.
I hadn’t been an obvious candidate for a suicide attempt. I was a lanky teenager who played in a band and had a lot of friends. My parents loved me and provided a lifestyle that was comfortably middle-class. I had a car and everything. My life looked about as stable and secure as adolescence can be.
Lying on the floor that day, I couldn’t believe that I’d pulled the trigger. Taking one’s own life goes against some of our most powerful instincts, those for life and self-preservation. This is why, when someone attempts suicide, the most obvious response for the people closest to them is to ask the unanswerable question, “Why?” For people like me, however—those who have survived suicide attempts—there’s an additional, equally puzzling question: Did I really want to die?
The answer seems clear. After all, I’d put a loaded gun in my mouth and pulled the trigger. But if I’d really wanted to die, why hadn’t I picked up the shotgun, troubleshooted the problem, and then tried again? How could I want to die badly enough to pull a trigger once, but not twice?
Why, instead, did I lie on the floor, full of grief and shame, lamenting that I had failed even at killing myself, while feeling thrilled by the tears on my cheeks because those tears meant I was still alive? How could I be happy at the same time I wished to be dead?
My struggle over suicide was life or death. My feelings warred with themselves, fighting in equal measure for another breath and a final one.
But who was I struggling with? I was the only one in the room.
On the morning I write this, the California sun streams into the bedroom I share with my wife, Jenny. Our dogs have started to prance around the foot of our bed, anxious for us to wake up. They’re older dogs, with gray muzzles and a love of naps. They’re mellow enough to not bark or jump on the bed, but they’ve learned that their nails make a ceaseless click-clack on the hardwood floor that reliably breaks the slumber of their human roommates. “Time to get up,” they say, as politely as a canine can muster.
This year has brought a lot of change to my family. One of the smaller changes was moving across the country from Florida to California. Jenny and I had both lived in Tallahassee our entire lives, and it’s hard to imagine a bigger change than moving from our sleepy southern hometown to a city like Los Angeles. The move has been both thrilling and exhausting. A mega-city has a lot more things to do, but somehow far fewer places to park.
I often cope with stress by eating, and L.A. is more than happy to enable me. I’ve been packing on the pounds while at home—and packing them on while I travel for events. It’s a bad cycle. So last night, I decided that I would take a walk when I woke up.
I love going for walks. Aside from the obvious health benefits, I find that time spent walking outside pays dividends in my emotional well-being, and makes me more creative and focused once I sit down at my desk. Plus, the perfect Southern California weather knocks out my favorite excuse for avoiding exercise: heat combined with high humidity. Most mornings, I wake with the intent of roaming around the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains before getting on with my day. But this morning, I just watched that famous golden sunlight through the window and ate a banana in my favorite chair, even as a small voice in my head told me, “It’s not too late! Just go outside and walk now.”
This happens to me all the time. How many mornings have I wasted by snagging my iPhone off of the nightstand, instead of leaving it there until I’ve eaten breakfast with my family? I can’t even estimate the percentage. Why do I always walk past the juice bar and buy my afternoon snack at the little shop Donut Friend?
Why do I so often choose to do things I know aren’t best for me? Why do I sit on the couch when I love to go outside? Why do I watch late-night TV when mornings are my favorite part of the day? I don’t even like television. Why do I do these things even though I know I’ll feel shame later, after I do them?
Lucky for me, I am not alone. Part of my work (we’ll get to this later) involves listening to people talk about the parts of their lives that frustrate them most. It seems we all struggle with late-night Netflix binges, skipped workouts, and deeper existential concerns about our mental health and belonging. I’ve learned that most people are fighting their own version of this internal war. What’s good for us later fights what feels good right now. Guiding this internal debate are a set of hazy, indistinct emotions and impulses that drive us to do things we have little interest in, or feel guilty about later.
My own feelings and desires often confuse me, or seem in outright rebellion against my will. But it’s not just that I so often struggle to do what I know is right. Sometimes I can’t understand why I did something at all.
Turns out, I am not the first person to study this struggle.