Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences.
– Norman Cousins
One of my patients, Phillipe, is a former ski instructor. Never one to waste an opportunity to learn from another discipline what might be useful for my own, I asked him what the secret of being a good skier was. He explained:
“Being a good skier is being able to imagine what you are going to do in a few seconds’ time – via muscle memory or experiences. The importance of this is that, when you need it, you execute what you are going to do perfectly.“
“So, if you’re not good, you are a few seconds behind the turn – rather than ahead of it?“
The question of the ‘right’ thing to do is always one that comes up for me – and for the people I see. How do you define the right thing to do? Some feel that the right thing to do is a moral imperative. There is an absolute set of rules or conventions that are morally right – or morally wrong. Justice needs to prevail. Alternatively, a list of oughts and shoulds from childhood seem to be embedded in the individual’s thinking.
I still have no perfect answer to the question of the right thing to do under circumstances. Similarly, there is no one person who seems to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It was easier during my childhood – where the old cowboy films gave guidance. Those people wearing the white hats were obviously the goodies, and those wearing the black hats were obviously not.
However, time moved on and suddenly there appeared individuals who were bad but had good sides to them. There were those who were good – but had some very dodgy parts to their personality. I waited for the hats to change. Were there any cowboys who had grey hats? Perhaps polka dotted hats? Perhaps they would change hats from one scene to the next. However, the good and the bad were still defined by the color of their hats – and they didn’t change throughout the film.
I realised that good and bad were not qualities that were reliably portrayed by others – and there was huge difficulty in defining what was good or bad. Therefore I had to find a new model as I grew up.
The new model was consequences. The question was, ‘What were the best consequences?’ Of course, this led to a major problem for me in deciding whether or not ‘meaning well’ counted. If the consequences were bad but the individual meant well – would that be an acceptably good action? The intentions might be perfect – but if the consequences were bad, the outcome was not a good one.
I can remember hearing on Thought for the Day many years ago – or perhaps Prayer for the Day – a message from a Vicar in Alloa, Scotland. He sermonized “Today I pray for those who mean well – for they are misguided – and focus on their own feelings but not for the consequences of their actions.” I think that he might have added that they were also, misguided, as well as somewhat selfish.
Even if consequences are difficult to work out, it is a good starting point. Before making an action, the consequences have to be fitted in. Before hurting others, similarly, the actions have to take into account what happens as a result of those actions.
Individuals feel that they should be able to behave as they wish – for self-expression. Within marriages, the message seems to be, ‘Because they love me and I love them, my behaviour should be forgiven.’ However, as I have suggested elsewhere in the site, it is within the marriages and the family that the behaviour have to be its best, not at its most careless.
I’m so often reminded that of the fact that individuals treat their secretaries, colleagues at work – and their friends – better than they treat their partners. It doesn’t quite make sense if you look at it objectively. Certainly, people would argue that people at work – and their friends – don’t hurt them in the way that their partners or family does. So be it. The question isn’t what they do to me; it is what I do to them.
Phillipe’s view of being prepared for the turn is an important lesson for me to learn.
Names have been changed.