It’s a staple of science fiction for a robot to dutifully obey its programming and keep performing the task it was given long after its designers are dead and the task is useless.
One of the most emotionally satisfying tales of this sort is Pixar’s 2008 film “WALL•E.” For 700 years, this little robot has been alone on Earth cleaning up the trash humans left behind when they left the planet. It’s a useless job at this point, but it’s the job he’s been given, so that’s what he does — day after day and year after year.
WALL•E’s human creators are long gone but he doesn’t question what he’s been programmed to do. Over the centuries, though, he develops curiosity and something in him finds the awareness that something isn’t quite right.
WALL•E realizes he’s lonely — something his programmers never prepared him to deal with. When another robot finally shows up on the planet, he falls in love. That love for another robot gives him the incentive to go beyond his programming — to find ways to fill a need he didn’t know he had — but it requires him to give up the task he had been mindlessly doing for all those years in order to pursue Eve instead.
Although the story is about robots, it’s a very human tale.
We can be exactly like those robots from science fiction when we continue to obey childhood programming which was never healthy to begin with but which is actively destructive to us after all these years.
Many of us were taught — through rewards, punishment, threats, intimidation, praise and a thousand other forms of manipulation — to be exactly what someone wanted us to be — compliant or successful or impressive or a million other things. When we were children, there were sometimes valid reasons for some of those things we were taught, but when we never learn to let go of that and become what we decide we want to be, we’re no better than those dystopian robots uselessly doing what we were programmed to do.
What’s most cruel about this is that if we internalize our programming well enough, we believe we’re performing as we are because we want to, even though we might sense that something is terribly wrong inside us.
This can take many forms. It can make us pursue the trappings of success that are far beyond what we need. It can make us desperately pursue approval from others in order to feel good about ourselves. It can lead us to devote our lives to sacrificially helping others in an effort to feel needed and appreciated. And on and on.
If you look carefully at the things people pursue and then understand what those people were rewarded for doing or being as children, you’ll go a long way toward understanding why they want what they want — and why they pursue things they don’t even consciously enjoy anymore, as well as why whatever they do never seems like enough.
If you’re one of these people, the easiest course is to continue doing exactly as you were taught, shoving aside the doubt and fear that you were meant to be something else. I did that for many years and I still struggle with it even though I’m aware of it now.
The hardest thing you can do — and the only thing which has the possibility of giving you the feeling of fulfillment we all need — is to learn to be what you really are, but that can involve quieting a voice that calls you selfish for wanting to be yourself — and it requires finally saying, “No,” to the person or people who programmed you.
When that person is the one you believed you held most dear and who you assumed loved you the most, that can be the hardest part — but you have to live your own life, not the life someone else programmed into you, intentionally or otherwise.
In the movie, WALL•E had already developed loneliness and unhappiness which weren’t part of his programming, but he didn’t have the incentive or the courage to break out of his pattern until he experienced the most human of emotions.
The beginning of love was the turning point for WALL•E.
Love can be the turning point for you.
It’s not easy to become who you were always meant to be, but it’s impossible until you say, “No,” to past programming by someone else — and become honest with yourself and others about what you really need to do and be.