A box of chocolate

This year – 2014 – has not been a good year for me. My Chinese Zodiac said it would be so, and, while I remain un-superstitious about those things, I may say the horoscope was sort of right. However, this year more than ever before, I have come to realize that I am also blessed with great friends, who directly or indirectly, often unknowingly, have shown great support.

In a recent discussion with one of them, we brought up Forrest Gump‘s story (in fact his mother’s philosophy), where he likens life to a box of chocolate (excerpt available on YouTube here). The bottom line is well-known: you never know what you are going to get. I saw the movie when it came out in VHS, somewhere about 1995 (the younger readers might need to click here); and under the insistence of my English teacher at the time, read the book… in French. My friend was also in her teens when she saw the movie for the first time, and we promptly agreed that as life goes on, what seemed to be a witty line in a movie was resonating quite well on its own right.

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The following day, she pushed Mrs. Gump’s wit a little further: in her “mean-as-usual-but-it’s-just-teasing” kind of way, she said my writing was bitter(!) As I have had a bitter year so far, it sort of made sense, and so I reluctantly agreed with her. I had not told her that for a minute before she nailed it even deeper – she is much smarter than me – and wrote to me “maybe you picked those 70% cocoa in your box of chocolate lately, so the rest in the box would be with milk, sugar, berries, nuts… and with 35% of cocoa”.

Could it be that we have we so much of each kind in our boxes? Could it be that Forrest’s mother (and my friend!) was onto something both simple and grand? An approach to life that tells us that (1) we are all given certain chances at birth (what Warren Buffett like to call the ovarian lottery); that (2) each life event has a different feel, which (3) we can characterize as a different bitterness, sweetness, after taste, etc. and (4) that there is so much variety.

Of course this is all allegorical: some of us might end up with a box of 15 cocoa bonbons, while others’ boxes might have 5,683. For many of us, it seems the content of the box changes all the time, further imposing on us the belief that we do not know what comes next. Are the boxes being replenished as we go along? Do we pick when we get the next chocolate? More importantly, are there a finite number of good or bad chocolates? How do we recognize what is the type of the chocolate we just got? In this short essay, I offer my answers to these questions, seeking for some introspection that I hope can also prove useful to anyone.¹

Our first assumption for the analogy to hold is to agree that we all receive some sort of box at birth, with many sorts of chocolates in it, and of course no listings of what is which. We need to accept this to continue.

The second assumption is to say a chocolate equates to a life event; or in other words, each life event has properties (characteristics) that echoes a range of feelings we can find in a box of chocolates. We may imagine for example that a very nice praline, rare but anticipated, crunchy and sweet, might be the counter-point of some sort of achievement, academic or professional. One can also imagine what a chocolate with kir would mean, in terms of alcoholic taste or after-taste effects.

The third assumption is then to say that every life event is akin a chocolate and so the more life events we are to encounter, the bigger the box should be. This is problematic because we witness, judge and reflect on our own actions and we are led to believe they determine future events. If we believe in destiny and fate, we can be tempted to stop the here, however unless we believe in a fully predetermined life, there are events we classify as preset for us, but not all, leaving room for both fortune (chance) and free will. If I decide today to rob a bank, a rather long series of bitter chocolates awaits me, culminating in the confiscation of my chocolate box at the entrance of the jailhouse. And this is from my own doing. Believers in destiny

The fourth assumption is therefore to say that the box size and content do not vary over time. However, building on the problems raised by the third assumption, the box size must be variable if we are to have free will. If we do have a say in what happens in our lives, then our decisions must affect the content of the box. If today I decide to behave badly (rob a bank), there might be bitter consequences later on (jail) or sweet ones (sipping caipirinhas on a Brazilian beach). As we progress, we realize that the role of fortune is also crucial. The box content can only be automatically attached to the number of units, for the same reasons: for every action I take, the number of sweet things coming my way is affected, with various amplitude, luck doing its part.

From these assumptions and the few comments I made about them, several conclusions can be drawn. I am a firm believer in free will, simply because I believe that whatever we do in life does matter, and has an effect on us, on others, and on our future prospects in life. In the footsteps of many ancient, modern or contemporary philosophers, I am confident that leading a morally good life is rewarded with intrinsic happiness, with no other origins or consequences than how we relate our own happiness to our own selves, and thus to our behaviors. In other words, genuine happiness and fulfillment in life is not left to chance; circumstances due to luck, or the lack thereof (the ovarian lottery), affect us but ultimately it is on each of us to make our way towards it and through life.

If we agree to state that our actions change our outlook in life, then the types of chocolates available for us to pick must vary over time. At some point in time, we might have only nice ones lined up and waiting for us. This state of bliss is probably very rare, but reaching it is certain to be highly rewarding and likely achievable. At some other times, after a period of such bliss or constancy, we might run into some bad luck, for a reason or another, and against all odds get a much bitter chocolate. We may shrug it easily. But then might come another one, ever so bitter, and another afterwards. There is a danger here: bitterness is addictive, it leads to a downward spiral. Thinking “My box is only bitterness and sourness, there is nothing good in there.” My friend was perhaps warning me of the danger: as if she was saying “you are a good person, once you run out of the bad ones, good stuff will come your way. Make sure you recognize the good things when they come.”

I thought she must believe in free will too; and it turns out she does not, or at least not in the terms I have defined it. Her view is that of destiny, fate and fortune. Further, she believes in life experiences over expectations from life. It is a very sensible objection to my point. While I thought she meant to say that my box must have some good stuff in it, she was actually saying that all boxes are made of various stuff, good and bad, in a sort of predetermined fashion. It is then up to us to interpret what we get. Her example was that of coffee: we all find coffee bitter and learn to taste it as cups come along. So we can also learn the bitter pieces and recognize them for what they are.

Again, then the conflicting idea emerges: is Mrs. Gump telling us “we get what we get and we make do with it” or is she telling us “we have a responsibility to what is in our box”? She seemed to mean the former, while I believe in the latter. These views are not exclusive; I think both are right.

Before discussing why I think the two ideas can be merged into one, I need to regress for a moment. There is an open question I have not addressed yet: when do we pick chocolates? And, more importantly: when am I going to pick the next one? Can I see the chocolate flying into my mouth, or can I see my hand reaching into the box? I think there are two possible answers. Firstly, the naive response: the box is sort of magic, it forces upon us the rhythm of consumption, it decides for us when is the next event. Under this view, life tells us that it randomizes things as it goes, and good luck, bad luck, poor choices, are all pre-determined. This is the ‘fortune and luck’ answer. Obviously this does not seat well with free will. The second answer is that we chose when we open the box and draw something out of it to taste it. Free will restored! On the one hand, we chose when we make changes in life. On the other hand, the strongest among us can take the time to look at the chocolate they have drawn and decide: am I having it? It takes a lot of courage and force to have a nice looking chocolate in front of you, it is sweet, calling you nice names, flirting with you – but you just decide to toss it away.

Strong with our determination to decide we might determine when to have a chocolate, we can veto what chocolate to have, we can even change our threshold to decide how much acid is too acid, how much sweetness is too sweet, etc. In other words we can choose which are the bad ones and decide to do without them. As said, it takes an enormous amount of courage and dedication, but! It also means we are in control. And this is how the two views are brought together: while one cannot decide everything that life brings, one decide which parts of it she is going to attach importance to. We can take a step back, reflecting on our lives and tell ourselves “this and that happened and I decide what mattered”. Drawn from personal experience, I may say that I get upset when someone disappoint me, let’s say canceling a meeting at the last minute. That would be a weird kind of chocolate to invent but for my taste, it would be akin and orange peel 90% cocoa piece. It’s one chocolate, I will chose to forget it as soon as I can, and move on to the next thing.

This skillset has prerequisites: we must have a personal ethics to guide us and abide with to interpret life events we face. We all must have gone through this process of self-reflection in which we define where are the boundaries of right and wrong. By having decided what is morally right, we can lead a meaningful life: righteous actions are right because they are right on their own, they are intrinsically right. This argument goes well with the believers in fortune and destiny: they might be right since experience forges who we are and what our beliefs are, and how we expect to react to future events, in front of which we freely decide the attitude to have.

On a side note, morally wrong actions are wrong because they give us unfair outcomes, to the detriment of others. Intrinsically wrong actions do not exist, they are nihilist and cannot be sustained, destroying themselves. So much for the believers in extrinsic happiness (derived from a materialist way to lead one’s life for example); their box is rigged².

Once we know the difference, between what we get and what we think we should get, once we have decided for our own sake where to draw the line, we might still get the same chocolates, but we can decide how they taste. Only then, we can claim to be happy, because we know what is happiness made of – in terms of chocolate confectionery at least.

Perhaps we all define happiness and the meaning of life in different terms. I am a junior in writing essays, so if you disagree or agree, if you think I missed something, please reach out.

¹ An ambition I have zero confidence with, but appreciate any comments.

² I realize this part needs more development, but it does not seem to be worth it: if you have made this far into the essay, you would probably agree with me it is common sense to say that extrinsic happiness is a lure.