“I Would Never Do That”
“If you were in a survival situation, you would not only eat meat, you would crave it,” declared my husband in a conversation about choices made in life-or-death circumstances.
Intellectually, I knew he was right. The body’s drive for survival easily overrides any normal aversion I have towards animal flesh. Yet even though I know my instincts would temper my usual loathing for meat, I still struggle with the idea of willingly eating something that I view with disgust. But of course, I’m trying to imagine survival when both my stomach and pantry are full.
Just because we have trouble imagining something, does not mean that it cannot happen.
From a safe distance, it’s easy to judge. To think in terms of absolutes, always and nevers. It’s easier to declare something is impossible than to take the uncomfortable mental road of contemplating precursors that may lead to you doing the seemingly impossible.
So what’s the problem with these black-and-white declarations?
When we think in terms of absolutes, we both judge others and leave ourselves vulnerable to sliding into bad decisions.
Consider the common proclamation of, “I could never cheat on my spouse.” It’s an easy statement to make and an agreeable position to believe in.
Yet in taking that headstrong stance, you inevitably judge others that commit adultery. You view them as somehow weak or lacking in character. You take the moral high ground and shove them into a cesspool occupied by those who fail to live up to your standards. Instead of listening to and learning from the mistakes that led to their downfall, you judge their choices while insisting that you could not make the same miscalculations regardless of the circumstances.
I am by no means defending those who have chosen to be unfaithful. I find the behavior reprehensible and unbelievably damaging to everybody in its path. Yet I also see it as part of human fallibility. Not inevitable, but not entirely avoidable on a societal level.
But even though I can’t imagine ever committing adultery, I will not claim that I could never do it. From my current perspective, it is as unfathomable to me as choosing to eat meat. Yet, I cannot claim that a change in situation would not lead to a change in perspective.
If I believed that I could never stray, I would be more likely to slide into infidelity, unaware and unwilling to recognize warning signs and precursors.
So rather than say that, “I would never,” I find it more honest to say, “I never want to” and then make sure that my choices align with that intention.
“I Can’t Help the Way I Feel”
I shake my head every time I read about the every-increasing trigger warnings added to college syllabi and work presentations. On the one hand, I do think it is considerate to prepare somebody ahead of time for something that they may find difficult (I’m thinking of NPR’s habit of a brief warning for parents before broadcasting a story with language or content that may be inappropriate for children). On the other hand, the expectation of trigger warnings sends the message to the triggered that the responsibility for their well-being and mental comfort lies with others.
And that’s where I disagree.
We all have a right to our emotional reactions. We have a right to feel the way we feel and to respond to external stimulus as we choose. But we don’t have a right to demand that other people act in a certain way in order to regulate our emotions.
That’s an inside job.
If somebody does or says something that upsets you, you ultimately have two choices: learn to adjust your response or decide to avoid the person.
And that’s not easy.
It’s something I face on an ongoing basis with my fear of abandonment. There are so many innocuous things that my husband can do or say that can trigger this fear in me. My first instinct is always to shift that responsibility on him, to request that he refrain from the words or actions that make me respond in this way. I want to declare that my reactions are a direct response to his actions and that my fear is an inevitable response.
But that’s not true and that’s not fair.
Because I can help the way I feel.
Not easily and not all at once.
But the only way that I’ll learn to temper my fear of abandonment is by addressing it, not by asking others to protect me from it.
“I’m Right; You’re Wrong”
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Stephen Covey
Most of us enter into discussions and encounters with the assumption that we are right and we require substantial evidence and persuasion in order to change our minds. We lead with the belief that our perspective is the correct one, our moral code is the superior one and our understanding is the penultimate one.
It’s a limiting view as confirmation bias simply feeds the perspective that we carry rather than challenging us to see something new.
When you enter a conversation with the conviction that you are right, your energy is expended on defending your position. Rather than listen, you grow defensive. Rather than question, you attack alternative viewpoints. Rather than engage in conversation, you end up participating in a debate, complete with scoring.
I know I have a tendency to feel threatened when my views are criticized. My inclination is to respond defensively, enumerating the reasons that my thoughts are right. I can easily interpret an attack on my beliefs as an attack on me.
And maybe you are right. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the other person is wrong. Perhaps they have a different perspective born of different experiences. Maybe they are just at a different point of understanding and they need more time to gain clarity.
And maybe you are wrong. And by allowing the acceptance of that, you can begin to see another perspective.
Because after all, we are all human. Imperfect and messy.
No matter what we tell ourselves.