Sir Isaac Newton proposed his First Law of Motion, the Law of Inertia, in 1687: A body at rest tends to remain at rest. A body in motion tends to stay in motion. Bodies will continue in their current state, whether at rest or in motion, unless acted on by a greater outside force.
Three hundred and twenty years later, I experienced a eureka moment — I suddenly realized that human beings, too, are subject to natural laws that closely resemble the laws of physics. Playing on Newton, I came up with my own First Law, The Law of Human Inertia: Having once established a life trajectory, people tend to continue on that course unless acted on by a greater force.
My observation turns out to be more than metaphor. The closer I look at human behavior, the more startling are the similarities between human behavior and Newton’s law. Like an asteroid when it first breaks away from a larger celestial body, great forces — in our case, genes, parents, community, and society — are exerted on our lives from inception. People, like asteroids, are set on a path by those early forces and continue on that path throughout their lives, for better or worse, unless other forces alter their course. The trajectory on which our life inertia carries us may also be as arbitrary as that of the asteroid, because when we are young we have no more influence over the direction of our life inertia than does an asteroid over its course. Neither asteroids nor people choose their initial path. And, like the asteroid, we are often unaware of the course we are on or what propels us down that path.
The parallels also explain why it’s so difficult for people to change the trajectory of their lives. Most people think of inertia as an object at rest, like the proverbial couch potato. The reality of inertia is actually quite different. People are in fact moving steadily and inexorably along a path driven by powerful life forces. Seeing people in this dynamic perspective completely changes the understanding of what it takes to shift the direction of people’s lives. We can now see that people aren’t “stuck,” as so many refer to themselves when they are dissatisfied with their lives. In reality, they are moving at warp speed, propelled by multiple forces along their life path. As a result, small forces — such as a modest insight, a brief “aha!” moment, or a nudge from a friend — simply won’t provide adequate power to counteract what currently drives us. To the contrary, because of the great forces that are already controlling our lives, even greater forces must be applied if there is going to be significant change
If we could step back and look at the path of our lives, many of us would find that we are, in significant ways, still on the same trajectory, still reacting to the world much as we did when we were young. We might, for example, still be carrying a hair-trigger resentment of authority, or trying hard to please others instead of meeting our own needs. Why might we still be acting in ways that are no longer useful to us? Because our childhood experiences still control and propel us along the trajectory we’ve been on our entire lives.
We can see those early influences in the attitudes and beliefs we hold about ourselves and the world, how we perceive and think about our lives and the emotions that dominate it, and whether the decisions we make and the actions we take are beneficial or harmful to us. We can better understand what’s controlling us by looking at the jobs we hold, the people we surround ourselves with, the activities we participate in, and the routines we follow. But the ultimate clue is whether we believe that we’re in control of the direction of our lives.
Ideally, we should be on a path toward our healthiest goals of happiness, love, success, and growth. When we’re on this path, we’re able to feel joy and to be inspired. We’re optimistic. A healthy path also shows itself if we’re happy in our work, experience warm and loving relationships, have fun in meaningful hobbies and recreation, and find spiritual meaning in our lives.
Yet some people are on a path that leads to a life less meaningful, fulfilling, or enjoyable than they would like. These people know they’re on this trajectory when they frequently feel angry, sad, or hurt. Their thinking tends to take a pessimistic cast, and their behavior often undermines what they’re trying to accomplish. If their work is unsatisfying, if they often feel lonely, and really don’t have many ways to enjoy life, chances are they’re still on that inertial path.
These people may feel helpless to change the course of their lives. As much as they’ve tried, they just can’t seem to alter its trajectory. And the reason that change is so difficult is that First Law of Human Inertia. If they’re going to change, they need to apply forces that are greater than the forces currently controlling the direction of their lives. To slow down, change direction, and go where they want to go will take a huge amount of fresh energy.
Fortunately, we are not asteroids hurtling through space, lifeless pieces of rock over which we have no control. We are much more like spaceships that we have not had control of through most of our lives — full of abilities that are ready to be harnessed and directed if only we knew how. We can gain control of that spaceship that is our life, and we can become the masters of the journey of our lives. We can achieve total command and, to quote Star Trek, be free to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Featured image: Shutterstock
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now