The Illusion of One-Way Bargains

How the larger narratives in our lives, such as the American Dream, drive our expectations from life.

I’ve been reflecting upon how we got here, in this terrible mess, not just looking at the events of yesterday, but with the events that have been building up to this moment over the past couple of decades. Without a doubt, one thing I keep hearing, regardless of who is saying it, is that “you can’t ignore” the millions of people who are openly supporting these aggressive, reactionary views that have culminated in this moment yesterday.

People are in pain. And they have been for some time. They’ve been slowly watching their world, that they know and love, crumble and collapse around them for a while now. The pandemic, if anything, has sped up this crisis and made it even more evident, making them feel like they have almost completely lost control of their world and even themselves, their identity. They don’t know how to live in this scary, uncertain New World that is emerging and all they want to do is return to the safety and certainty of the Old World that they once knew.

I think what people need to realize right now is that what they are experiencing, this feeling of a loss of control, is completely normal. It will feel like the ground has been pulled out from under you and you no longer have an external reference point to directionally ground and stabilize yourself and your life because you’re navigating newer, rougher waters that seem completely foreign, unfamiliar, and uncertain to you, thus things won’t make any sense. Again this is a completely normal feeling to have, especially when one is facing a major life challenge that will dramatically change their view of the world and themselves as well.

Now in a world that had prepared us for these epic challenges as a normal experience of life, we would then openly share these experiences with each other and try to work and “walk through them” together, making the transition and learning to make sense of our new world and our new selves in a healthy, constructive way. Unfortunately we don’t live in that kind of world but one in which we’ve been misguided into believing that reality is permanent and stable. It’s not. Life is constant change. Therefore we often have to grieve at realizing the impermanence of our world, undergoing stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, and meaning to finally make this transition and grow beyond it.

While I could probably talk about the feelings around this all day, I specifically want to talk about the initial stages of denial, anger, and bargaining which cause people to naturally regress inwardly when they encounter major life challenges and changes. Specifically I’d like to refer to something Robert Fritz called One-Way Bargains within his book The Path of Least Resistance that really gets to the heart of why people become so angry and feel like they’ve been “cheated” by life (or more specifically in their mind, by some external force that they can then point their finger at and blame for the troubles in their life).

One-Way Bargains

In order to have the return of the prodigal complete and whole, the two sons needed to reconcile. However, there was a twist in the story. In the beginning of the parable the father and the son who stayed at home were aligned whereas the prodigal son was misaligned. When the prodigal returned home, however, he and his father became aligned, but the good son became misaligned. How did this change come about?

The good son had made what may be called a “one-way bargain” with the father. In a typically reactive-responsive way, he assumed that if he did all of the “right things” and adhered to the “right standards” and followed the “right precepts,” he would be rewarded by his father. He was shocked to see his brother, who had not followed the “right path,” being welcomed, honored, and celebrated.

Many people make similar one-way bargains. Typically in this unilateral bargain, one person assumes that if he or she follows certain practices, others (or perhaps even the universe itself) must reciprocate in some way.

In a one-way bargain the other party never really agrees to the bargain and often does not even know of it.

A classic example of a one-way bargain is found in the early stages of many relationships, when one person unilaterally decides not to date any other people, with the implicit demand that the other person in the relationship do likewise. This is a one-way bargain if the other person never makes that agreement.

There are those who attempt to live “good” lives as a one-way bargain with the universe. They decide that if they are “good,” the universe must reciprocate and be good to them.

The trouble is, the universe did not make that agreement with them. In the parable of the prodigal son, the good son’s actions were part of a one-way bargain, tied to the rewards he expected from his father. But that was not an agreement the father had made with him.

If the good son had been righteous because he wanted to be, rather than for the reward he expected from his father, his actions would have been their own reward. The parable implies, however, that the good son was good for an ulterior motive. In a typically reactive-responsive way, the good son did what he thought he had to do, not what he truly wanted to do.

The Path of Least Resistance, Robert Fritz

For anyone who is familiar with Robert Kegan’s work on psychological development, the difference between the good son and the prodigal son within the above parable perfectly describes the difference between the Socialized Mind and the Self-Authoring Mind (and the father could even be seen as the more evolved Self-Transforming Mind). The key emphasis here is how the good son (as a representation of the Socialized Mind) perfectly embodies how most people are feeling right now (since Socialized Minds comprise most of the population). They feel cheated by life because in their minds, they’ve followed all of the rules of the American Dream but life isn’t keeping its “part of the bargain” and thus it’s cheating them (or least someone out there is).

In reality though, people with Socialized Minds are cheating themselves. Why? Because they’re believing in a narrative that, while once it may have been true, is no longer the case. But they don’t question the narrative or their reality, they just defend them. They will most definitely question and attack anyone who threatens the stability of their reality though. Why? Because they believe their reality is true and will always be true because they accept the truth of what they’ve been told by a higher authority and do what they’re told. That’s why Social Minds are good followers because when you mobilize them (especially against an external threat, such as in World War II when American values were threatened), they can put their heads down, get to work, and achieve amazing things.

In comparison though, people with Self-Authoring Minds continually strive to question the assumptions and beliefs of their reality to further help clarify and crystallize who they are within it, so as to transform and change themselves externally. So they go beyond just trying to fit in and strive to understand how they stand out uniquely, thus individuating themselves psychologically speaking. But to do so, they need to question the authority of others and therefore must self-author the authority of their own life, a sort of self-governance if you will. This is why Self-Authoring Minds (who form a smaller portion of the population) often make good leaders because they help others see a different and larger, empowering vision of the world beyond what they are currently seeing (and by “empowering”, I mean it can’t be a negative, fearful vision that emphasizes blame on others but one that instead focuses on taking responsibility for oneself).

The reason the world seems to be “going to hell in a hand basket” right now, as the expression goes, is because the world is changing at a pace we’ve never experienced or comprehended before in our lifetimes or even in the lifetimes of previously known generations. Thus the stability and certainty of the follower-leader relationship between Socialized Minds and Self-Authoring Minds, which worked in overcoming simple and even complicated problems in our past, is no longer equipped to handle the emerging complexity of our world today. Therefore, all of us, not just people with Socialized Minds, need to evolve, grow, and adapt psychologically to the changing world around us, because a greater, more complex follower-leader relationship, comprised mainly of Self-Authoring Minds as followers and Self-Transforming Minds as leaders, is needed for us to be able to survive the complex wicked problems emerging before us.

Simply put, we need to help people “level up”, transforming their minds and their perception of reality, so that we can responsibly embrace change together, seeing possibilities and potential both around us and within us, rather than defensively fearing it. To do so though, we need to see these challenges in our lives, such as the epic ones were facing now, as an opportunity for growth and development, thus rising to the occasion, rather than running and regressing from them into the safety and reality of our past which no longer exists today, no matter how much we wish it or dream it.

To put this another way, we need to be like our parents and grandparents before us, who faced major challenges in their own times. But even though today we now known with some certainty what they went through back then because we are able to reflectively look back upon that time and make sense of it, we must realize that at that time they only saw the uncertain unknown before them in that moment, just as today we must face the uncertain unknown before us in this moment. Even more so because we can’t use their thinking that solved their complicated problems in their time, since we are dealing with exceedingly more complex problems that are emerging only now within our time. Therefore, we must not only use different thinking and different actions today, we must see ourselves in a much larger capacity and potential than we’ve ever imagined before.

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