The Law of Self-Sabotage
The greatest discovery of my generation is the fact that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.William James
Anton Chekhov came from a poor family in Russia. His father was a merchant by had an artist’s temperament, he drank frequently and took out his anger on his family. Anton had several brothers and his father would beat them for no reason, he said that it would instill humility in them. His mother was perpetually depressed and helpless. Nothing was going well for the Chekhovs, two of the sons (not including Anton) left their village for the city. Their father would soon follow, and in their minds, continue to haunt them.
Anton meanwhile stayed back home where he tutored for money. He was different from his brothers, who complained about what their father had done to them constantly. They felt like victims who had no control over their fate, they resorted to drinking or other vices to alleviate their pain. But their younger brother Anton managed to see things differently. After a while, he stopped seeing his father as an evil brute, but rather as a helpless old man who inherited a bad situation. He became more understanding of people, he also realized that he immensely enjoyed learning. He would go on to medical school and write on the side.
His spirit lifted others – even his family, who lived a subterranean existence after they had been evicted, they boarded a small lodge with other people in the red light district. Unlike his brother who often abused his mother and sisters, Anton helped them do house work. Eventually, his brothers followed, seeing that it was the right thing to do.
Anton maintained this attitude throughout life. One time, he wrote to one of his younger siblings who referred to himself as his younger, worthless brother. Anton told him that while he may be considered lowly in the eyes of God, in the eyes of other men he should stand proud and tall and never feel he is inferior to them.
His attitude shocked his family initially, but he managed to influence each of them, helping them have better lives and careers.
A following was later built around him, many Russians from different backgrounds followed him and considered Anton to be a kind of savior. When he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, he didn’t lose his grace. He marched on with the same conviction. He studied thieves and criminals and wrote short stories about them to get himself out of the condition he was in.
Whenever crisis hit Anton, he always looked for the solution. He never wasted any time lamenting his fate. His switch of attitude at a young age shaped his own destiny and that of many others who came in contact with him.
Change your Attitude
Greene’s message in this chapter is to understand the power of attitude. The idea is a Jungian one and it is as follows: each person has a subconscious inclination towards a certain kind of feeling. Some people are more depressive than others, some are more anxious, others are more resentful. The same environmental triggers are processed differently by people because each person is wired to see reality in their own way.
You must not allow yourself to be infected with your own tendencies in a negative way. If you are depressive, find creative outlets to release this energy and produce something beautiful. And if you find that some people are hopelessly resentful and will always manage to blame others for their failures and misery, it is best to avoid them.
Some attitudes are infectious. It is not easy to be like Anton Chekhov and change the lives and attitudes of other people, but what you can do is start with yourself and if you manage to keep yourself under reasonable control for long enough, you will be able to influence others who are in worse states.
Years later, in a letter to a friend, Chekhov tried to summarize his experience in Taganrog, referring to himself in the third person: “Write about how this young man squeezes the slave out of himself drop by drop and how one fine morning he awakes to find that the blood coursing through his veins is no longer the blood of a slave but that of a real human being.”
If you’re interested in exploring the darker parts of human psychology that most people ignore, consider reading this short book The Dichotomy of the Self.