At the very beginning of The French Revolution, an angry mob of common citizens stormed The Bastille in Paris. The Bastille was an enormous stone building that served as a state prison, where tortures and injustices had plagued commoners for century. It’s also where they kept the guns.
The mob killed the guards and released the prisoners, seizing the weapons in the process.
On that day, King Louis XVI had been out with a hunting party. He was in his palace when an aide came running up the steps, through the chamber and reported the storming of The Bastille.
“Is it a revolt?” the King asked.
The aide swallowed hard. “No, sir. It is a revolution.”
One of my favorite things about the New Year is that it is a natural place for us to slow down and contemplate our lives. Resolutions are a common expression of our desire to be better.
But most resolutions fail because we are only playing at being better. We take the opportunity for a halfhearted revolt, an event or a short-lived behavior modification, hoping for a quick result or the key to some short cut.
In the late 1700’s, autocratic rule had become System One Thinking for much of Europe. It was as much a part of life as tying our shoes or riding a bike. System One is the patterns that are so embedded in us, we operate in them on a mostly subconscious level.
Among Louis XVI’s many mistakes was this one: The System One hold the monarchy had over the country made it hard for him to understand he was not dealing with a simple revolt. A revolt is an event; a nuisance. It comes and goes. It sweeps in and disappears like a morning mist.
The French Revolution was more than this because it changed everything. The whole thing is gory and confused, but it changed everything.
When the common people took The Bastille, they worked to destroy it. There was no heavy machinery. They painstakingly toppled the historic prison to the ground stone by stone, clawing at it with their bare hands and prying it apart in chunks with crude tools.
The question we need to ask ourselves this New Year is whether we want a revolt or a revolution.
When we talk about System Two Thinking, one tendency is to try to dip down into it and get some secret nugget before returning to what has already worked. We want a revolt.
The System One way in which we conduct ourselves and approach the world is flawed. We harbor unforgiveness or hurry to blame. We throw tantrums of entitlement or curses of subtle bigotry. Some of us are just apathetic, complacent and bored. The spark in us that lights each new year lets us know that our old system one really isn’t working for us.
But System Two isn’t a gimmick. It isn’t a shortcut. It isn’t an easy fix. You can’t trick it by shuffling through the front door and darting out the back. It is a revolution. Stone by stone. Day by day. New habits forged from discipline. New perspectives informed by new experience.
If we really want the joy and deep satisfaction of a meaningful life, we have to commit to our internal revolution. We have to make a stand against our former self and say that now is the time when everything begins to change. Our revolts will be squashed. Our System One patterns are two deep and two rehearsed to be swept away by an incident here and there.
The alternative isn’t as simple as staying the same. The alternative is reinforcing the layers of our system one, the patterns of this world, adding another link in the shackles of our flesh.