Judge by action, not by words
We all fool ourselves into thinking things which aren’t necessarily true. It is a natural defense described in detail by Tim Wilson in his book “Strangers to Ourselves” (which I highly recommend to everyone). We sometimes simply must believe that we are more competent, moral, attractive, or humorous than our peers in certain situations (The obvious example is dating but the implications are much more far reaching.). I have personally made an intense effort over the past several years to view myself in a more objective light. This isn’t always easy but it is a process in which we should all engage. We tend to think that introspection will lend us a hand in divining our base motivations, feelings, or thoughts when in reality we are better served by observing our actions rather than our words. An analogy has been offered that introspection is akin to asking oneself “how do I digest?”. Many of the motivations for our actions lie outside the reach of our conscious selves in something called the “adaptive unconscious”. This portion of our brain conveniently takes up the tasks of deciding what it is we want and, many times, what we should do to get it.
I am sure all of you are immediately rejecting the notion. Why, of course I am in charge of my life; after all, I make my own decisions! I decide that I want to go out on that date, apply for that job, or yell at my child. In some respects you are correct, there is conscious control over our actions (Although I am not prepared to yield the issue of consciousness, I will accept it as necessary for the sake of the discussion.). We do consciously decide to perform certain actions but, can we ever really know why it is that we perform them? Why is it that we all know that putting something off is the wrong thing to do but we do it anyway, even when immediate gratification is absent? What is our underlying motivation? Why is it that some people are continually attracted to the “wrong type” of people? I am sure they have devised complex narratives to explain their aberrant behavior but do they truly know their own motivations? I suspect that they do not. It very easy to tell ourselves that we wouldn’t make the poor decisions we so often bemoan in others, that we are somehow morally or intellectually superior (Indeed this is often used as a rationale to explain why others may not accept us.) but the reality of our actions may just tell a different story.
It is through this process of self observation that I have come to my view today. I no longer think of myself as a moral absolutist and I am much less likely to condemn the actions of others without fully recognizing the power of their motivations. This does not leave me in the morally tenuous situation of being unable to condemn horrific actions due to an inability to “consciously control” behavior as I do concede that at least some level of higher-order, conscious reasoning does occur prior to action. It does mean that I have a much clearer picture of myself, and the world in general. It also helps to me to see beyond the actions of others to the reasoning behind their own strange behavior (Motivations are almost always complex and are too often simplified to such things as “insecurity”, “jealousy”, or “arrogance”). So, how has it affected my life? I can’t say that I still don’t make incorrect decisions (although now I do usually recognize their uselessness), or act purely due to emotion (The heart has reasons of which the mind knows nothing) but I am better able to see judge exactly why it is that I do certain things and think about whether or not they contribute to the individual I would like to be rather than who I would like to believe I am. This has been thrown for a loop recently as I have had to attempt to determine the origin of actions or events which seem to be absolutely puzzling to me. I suppose that it is part of the fun of life that I can’t figure it all out and that maybe, sometimes, I should stop trying.