How to Get People to Leave Paradise
Updated: Dec 7, 2021
That’s crazy. Why would anyone want to leave paradise?
If you’ve been around long enough, you’ve seen it happen. There are people who have a life that's as close to paradise as it’s going to get in this world: a high standard of living in a free country, a great family, successful career, perfect health, loyal friends – you name it. But they’re not satisfied. In fact, they’re restless and ungrateful, maybe even bitter and resentful. They want something better.
You don’t have to be a fiction writer to know that when people leave behind an excellent situation in search of perfection, most of the time they don’t find a better place, they find a worse place. But by then, it’s too late. The gates of paradise clang shut behind them, and the excitement of pursuing perfection quickly turns to regret when they realize that what they are chasing is a mirage.
Let me clarify. I’m not saying people should never seek something better. If a situation is bad or mediocre, of course people should strive for improvement. I’m talking about the opposite: when people trade paradise for not-paradise. In those cases, there is magical thinking at work: People who have 90% of what they want are convinced that if only they make this one little change, they’ll capture the remaining 10%, their situation will then be 100% perfect, and they’ll be 100% satisfied. They ignore the risk that they’ll lose paradise altogether.
Here is a quick illustration: I had a friend who was an attorney for white-collar defendants. Many of his clients were already rich and successful. Their fatal flaw was that they wanted the 10% more that they didn’t have, even though they had already made a fortune. They were willing to break the law to get an amount of money that would make no difference in their lifestyle. But the thrill of obtaining the out-of-reach 10% was too tempting to pass up. It was like being in a Garden of Eden, full of bounty, where you can eat of any tree except one. The one forbidden fruit is the one they wanted, and they wouldn’t rest until they had it in the palm of their hand.
Beware of the Serpent’s Persuasion
The thing that persuades people to leave their paradise is as old as . . . Adam and Eve. So, if you want to convince someone to leave paradise, just do what the serpent did in the Garden of Eden:
1. Point out that this paradise is intolerably imperfect
2. Ascribe nefarious motives to the Creator (or whoever is “holding them down”)
3. Promise there is something better if they follow the serpent’s advice
Let’s examine each strategy individually.
Tell them that this paradise is intolerably imperfect. In the Genesis story, the serpent re-frames the way Eve thinks about her situation. The garden that she thought was so great really isn’t so great. Adam and Eve are missing out on the opportunity to enjoy a tree that is not only “good for eating” but that is also “a delight to the eyes” and “desirable to contemplate” (Gen. 3:6). But wait, there’s more. The garden is not just imperfect, it is intolerably imperfect, says the serpent. Eve decides she must correct the imperfection by eating of the forbidden tree.
Ascribe nefarious motives to the Creator. Eve tells the serpent that God said to her and Adam: “‘You are not to eat from [the forbidden tree] and you are not to touch it, lest you die.’” The serpent replies: “Die, you will not die!” (Gen. 3:4). You can almost hear the mocking sneer in his tone. The serpent flatly contradicts God, by implication calling Him liar. In the next sentence, the serpent ascribes to God the nefarious motive of hoarding of knowledge and divinity for Himself and excluding the two humans from such an elite status: “God knows that on the day that you eat from it, your eyes will be opened and you will become like gods, knowing good from evil.” (Gen. 3:4-5). To put it in modern lingo, God is disenfranchising Adam and Eve and is keeping them down.
Promise there is something better if they follow the serpent’s advice. Notice that the serpent doesn’t give explicit directions for what Eve should do next. He lets Eve draw the conclusion herself. It’s clever, because once Eve accepts the serpent’s arguments, and once the seeds of discontent grow, it becomes obvious what action she “should” take. It also lets the serpent off the hook, because he can truthfully say he never told her to eat the fruit, she decided that on her own.
Notice that the serpent’s strategy depends to a large degree on the inexperience of Adam and Eve. Had the human couple been previous residents of, say, the hellish landscape of Dante’s Inferno, the serpent’s arguments would’ve lost much of their power. That’s because Adam and Eve could have weighed the risk of losing Eden because they’d have known it was possible to lose it. (I’ll return to this point later.)
The Serpent’s Techniques Today
Once you see what the serpent did in the Genesis story, you see these same techniques being used today, in advertising, politics, and political activism.
Let’s take the issue of living in Country Z. The citizens are divided into two camps: those who love it (the advocates) and those who hate it (the critics). The “serpents” are the activists and politicians who are trying to get people to mobilize for their cause. Serpents can appear on all sides of a debate, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll discuss just one side.
The advocates of Country Z focus on its virtues and are thankful. It’s a good place to live, especially compared to other places, as immigrants will attest. The advocates know there are flaws, and those flaws need to be addressed, but overall it’s the best place on the planet.
The critics of Country Z see only its flaws. They argue that those flaws are intolerable, and that Country Z needs to be radically changed (if not destroyed and rebuilt altogether). What a “perfect” Country Z looks like is not specified, but the critics know that the current version isn’t it. The serpents encourage the citizens of Country Z to rise up and fight so that a utopia can be built in its place.
1. The serpents will argue that the flaws are intolerable. They don’t compare Country Z’s flaws to those of other countries and other time periods, they’ll compare those flaws to an imaginary ideal – and the ideal is perfect. They assert that Country Z’s problems must be corrected immediately, regardless of cost, regardless of how many people will have their livelihoods destroyed and their property stolen. Contrary experiences and history are ignored.
2. The serpents will argue that someone is oppressing their favored group. The oppressors might be: the dead founders of Country Z, the current rulers, the citizens, a particular ethnic or religious group, or those who hold different opinions. The point is, there is some scapegoat (or group of scapegoats) who is to blame for the intolerable flaws of Country Z, and who is keeping down their favored groups.
The serpents claim that all will be perfect if everyone follows the serpents’ advice. The advice might be vague slogans (“Resist!” “Vive la révolution!”), or it might be specific (“Censor group X” or “Kill group Y”). Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, if the advice is vague enough, the serpents can claim that they never told their followers to commit crimes such as arson, looting, and murder. But one clue that the serpents are not opposed to the actions of their followers is if they don’t censure or prosecute those actions.
Another thing: Watch how the serpents will discourage their followers from learning history or honestly debating those with different viewpoints. I touched on this before, but it deserves emphasis. The serpents want to keep their followers naïve and inexperienced, as Adam and Eve were. Utopian activists – who are among today’s most dangerous serpents – compare the imperfect real world to what we humans can imagine. The problem is, what we humans can imagine is limitless perfection, while the real world is imperfect and constrained. But the utopians ignore all this and claim that if they are granted the power to make their imaginary world come true, all will be Eden.
Once you see the serpent’s persuasion techniques, you may be better prepared to resist the temptation. So, before you throw aside something really good, ask yourself: What are your actual chances of finding something better, and at what cost? What will be the trade off? This will give you a more realistic idea about whether you ought to risk what you have now in the pursuit of what you think is absolute perfection. Maybe you’re already in paradise, and you don’t have to leave it. Just don’t touch the fruit of that one tree.
(Note: I used the Fox translation of Genesis. The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Everett Fox, translator and commentator. The Schocken Bible, Vol. 1. New York: Schocken Books. 1995. The illustration is courtesy of Michaelangelo.)