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Motivation and Jonathan Edwards

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

The purpose of this post is to take two lines of thought and attempt to intersect them in a way that makes sense in understanding the topic of motivation. One line of thought comes from Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was the American pre-Revolutionary pastor, theologian, and philosopher that preached and wrote, among other things, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Interestingly that is not his most monumental work. He wrote a book called Freedom of the Will, from which one of my thoughts comes. Some consider Edwards to be the greatest American philosopher ever to live, so I think he’s a good source.

First, however, I want to point out something I see in my own work. At least several of the people I am working with or have worked with in the past will notice what I am about to describe. I say that because I don’t want anyone to think I am describing their specific experience. I want to describe a pattern and a context in which I have seen that pattern. It takes seeing this pattern several if not dozens of times, usually for me to recognize it as a pattern, so certainly not the product of one discussion or experience.

The context is behavior change. Someone asks me to help them make a change in their life, or a person laments that they do not have, and seemingly cannot have, something they want or desire. Because it illustrates my point so well, I’ll use the wanting or having of a romantic relationship. When I hear that someone wants to be in a romantic relationship or is sad that they are not, I do what I always do and start with the question, “how do you make sense of that?” In all of its forms, this question is by far the most helpful question to ask in such situations.

When I ask this question (i.e., How do you make sense of this?) and then press people on the validity of their responses, I find I get this very nice progression of types of responses. Responses usually come in three categories, and categories usually progress in the same order.

Reason Category 1 is the description of a describable outside force. For instance, I’ll ask how they make sense of not being in a relationship (or what’s getting in the way) and, for at least the past year, people have been saying that it’s the Pandemic. I press, and they will tell me it’s impossible to go on a date since you can’t get together in person. I challenge this response by saying that people can use the internet and socially-distance to start the dating process and do this all the time. If I’m successful in my challenge, meaning I prove that the Pandemic is not a sufficient explanation of not being in a relationship, the person will usually move on to Reason Category 2.

Reason Category 2 has to do with motivation. I may show the person that even though dating is challenging, it’s possible. The person might respond with some description of lack of motivation. They state they cannot bring themselves to take the next step. They may state that they are depressed or inundated with other things in their life, and these are usually true statements. In this stage, people must respond to the conflict between their goal (to be in a relationship) and their behavior (not making an appropriate effort). This is hard for just about everyone to do - reconcile their desires with their choices. Facing this conflict is so tough for most people that they usually move on to Reason Category 3.

Reason Category 3 is usually a description, or sometimes even a hope, of some unknown or magical outside force exerting influence on their lives. People may say that they don’t know what is getting in the way, but they feel this wall or some resistance. When I ask them to describe the force, just about everyone has trouble putting a label on it. Some, however, actually seem content to relinquish control to this force. It is not uncommon for people to say something like, “God doesn’t want me to be happy,” or perhaps this is the product of early childhood experiences. There are a surprising number of people who give up at this point and never revisit the goal. They seem content to accept that life is unfair or God is out to get them, or some other vague axiom to explain not meeting their goal.

The good news is that many people are willing to revisit some of their old explanations, specifically Category 2, where Edwards comes to the rescue. Category 2 has to do with motivation: wanting or preferring to do something. Edwards described the idea of Natural and Moral Inabilities, which is very helpful in this situation.

A Natural Inability is a limitation based on something outside of the self. For instance, even if people wanted to fly under their own power, we have a Natural Inability to fly and thus are kept from flying. No amount of desire is going to change the physics of flying for humans. Many people I talk to attempt to argue that the Pandemic has created a Natural Inability to be in a romantic relationship. I address this explanation to help people move on to Category 2. In Category 2, people then conflate Natural Inability with Moral Inability.

Moral Inability is located within the person. What is moral, according to Edwards, is that thing that the person sees as good. He’s not talking about a universal good here, just what appears good to the person at the time. What is a Moral Inability to being in a romantic relationship? Well, in simplest terms, not being in a romantic relationship is better than being in one. Or, the non-romantic relationship lifestyle the person is living is preferable (more good) to the perceived romantic relationship. Or, the changes that will have to be made to get a romantic relationship are aversive and thus require behavior that is less good than the status quo. I could say this a hundred ways, but what I tell people is that as much as they want a romantic relationship, they clearly want something else more, which makes being in a romantic relationship impossible (i.e., an inability) for them.

This is clearly not a lack of motivation. This is better described as a situation where someone needs to shift their motivation (or what they consider good) to achieve the desired goal. Those of you in a romantic relationship know that it is a lot of work to not only get into the relationship but to maintain the relationship. Much sacrifice happens in such relationships, and it is entirely reasonable that someone would be reluctant to make such sacrifices.

So how do we move forward? There are two reasonable options. Option 1 is to admit that as much as you want one thing (being in a relationship), you may want another thing (e.g., single lifestyle) more, and that is keeping you from your stated goal. Learn to be content with what you have. Be content with being single because of what you would have to give up to be in a relationship. Option 2 is to redefine what you see as most good or desireable. This process always includes some sacrifice, and people must weigh the cost. Be careful about relinquishing control to outside forces or blaming Natural Inabilities for times when you are actively deciding against your goals. That is the ultimate in dissatisfaction.

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