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 my own 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: The tendency of people, having once established a life trajectory, to continue on that course unless acted on by a greater force.
My observation turns out to be more than an interesting metaphor. The closer I look at human behavior, the more startling are the similarities. Like an asteroid when it first breaks away from a larger celestial body, great forces, in our case, genes, parents, 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 its 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. I believe that the reality of inertia is actually quite different. Inertia describes not merely the energy acting on a static object, like gravity on a ball-bearing on a marble table. Instead, people are in fact moving swiftly 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 bring change to 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 force to counteract those that currently drive 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 might see that we are, in significant ways, still on the same trajectory, still reacting to the world much as we did when we were children. We might, for example, still be carrying a hair-trigger resentment of authority or be trying hard to please others as opposed to meeting our own needs. Why might we still be acting in ways that are no longer useful to us? Because many of those childhood experiences still control us.
We can see their presence in the attitudes and beliefs we hold about ourselves and the world, the emotions that dominate our lives, and whether the decisions we make and the actions we take are beneficial or harmful to us. We can get clues about what’s controlling us by looking at the jobs we hold, the people with whom we surround ourselves, the activities in which we participate, and the routines that we follow. But the ultimate clue is whether we believe that we are in control of the direction of our lives.
Ideally, we are on a path towards our healthiest goals of happiness, love, success, and growth. When we’re on this path we have the ability to feel joy and to be inspired. We’re generally optimistic and able to participate in thriving relationships. A healthy path also shows itself if we’re happy in our work, experience warm and loving family and friends, have fun in meaningful hobbies and recreation, and find spiritual meaning in our lives.
Yet, for some people, the path they are on is giving them a life that is much less meaningful, fulfilling, or enjoyable than they would like. These people know they’re on this trajectory when they frequently feel angry or 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, 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 may want to or have tried, they just can’t seem to alter its trajectory. And the reason that change is so difficult is that First Law of Human Motion. 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 — full of capabilities that are ready to be harnessed and directed if only we know how — that we have not had control of through most of our lives. 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, as Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek wrote, be free to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man [or woman] has gone before.”