In A Perfect world
“I wish I hadn’t done that,” you mutter as you walk away. Or: “I wish I could take those words back!”
How many times has this happened to you?
The circumstances may be many and varied, but they share one common denominator: you’ve betrayed one of your own cherished values, and you regret it. For example:
You let yourself be drawn into a circle of gossipers because it feels so good to be part of the “in” crowd…
You give away a friend’s secret because it makes you feel important to have information that others lack…
You blow up at your know-it-all sister because her superior attitude triggers old feelings of envy and inferiority…
You lie to your boss to cover up a mistake you made, because you’re afraid of being viewed as incompetent…
I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Caught up in the impulse of the moment, your ego goads you into acting in a way that you know is not right. Even more: a way that, intellectually, you are absolutely convinced is wrong, harmful and not consistent with your highest ideals.
So why on earth did you do it? Are your impulses stronger than your knowledge and belief system? Or are we such creatures of habit that we can’t step away from entrenched negative behavior even when we want to?
Our ego-driven impulses are very strong. Jealousy, greed and the desire for honor and power can reach almost overwhelming proportions if we let them. Once that happens, they can morph from an occasional urge into an entrenched bad habit. And habitual behaviors are helped along by things like neural pathways and muscle memory, which make them feel so natural that we do them practically by rote. Even behaviors that we know are bad for us. Even ones that we know are wrong.
Why? Why this almost ludicrous disconnect between our value system and our behavior in the moment? Are we simply incapable of self-control?
Obviously, that is not the answer. Proof: we exercise tons of self-control in other areas of our lives. We get up in the morning and faithfully fulfill our responsibilities to our families, our employers, our communities and our Creator. We are creatures amply endowed with character strength and the ability to do the right thing… most of the time. So why does our self-control sometimes fail us just when we need it most?
I think it’s because, on some level, the knowledge of the action’s wrongness and its ability to inflict serious damage on ourselves and others is not really real to us. We hold our values dear in an abstract kind of way. A way that often has little bearing on our demeanor in the heat of the moment.
If our intellectual understanding of right and wrong can be compared to the management of a thriving corporation, and our emotional impulses correspond to the employees who toil in the back, then I guess you could say the crew never got the memo from the front office. Our minds may be filled with understanding and lofty ideals, but the message has never really made its way to our kishkes.
In other words, unless properly trained, the heart blithely goes its own way and acts independently of the head. Which is why, when put on the spot, we don’t always have ready access to the storehouse of wisdom we’ve work so hard to accumulate.
A pity. Because that’s exactly when we need it most.
How can we rectify this disconnect?
Sometimes we don’t have to. Sometimes the solution thrusts itself upon us, unexpectedly and with great force.
That can happen when we come suddenly face-to-face with the consequences of our negative behavior. For instance, if your friend finds out that you betrayed her confidence and expresses a desire to walk out of your life forever. When your boss discovers your error, and the lie you told to cover it up, and suddenly your job security is threatened. When your sister, deeply wounded by your outburst, stops talking to you and imposes a familial Cold War.
Loss, or fear of loss, can shake us up to the extent that we learn our lesson the hard way. The traumatic way. It’s a kind of shock treatment that dislodges our neural pathways and disbands our bad habits, from fear of losing something that is precious to us.
Shame can be another powerful catalyst for change. When you feel so disgusted with yourself for being untrue to your most deeply-held values that you simply cannot bear the thought of ever feeling that way again. Or when you are especially embarrassed about your behavior because it was witnessed by someone you respect. Either way, shame can prompt a person to make a drastic change, in order to avoid feeling the pain of that pitfall ever again.
Unfortunately, even fear and shame have their limits. The more we indulge in negative behaviors, the thicker our skin grows and the weaker becomes our sensitivity to its harmful effects. But, somehow, that memo has to make its way from the front office to the place where it’s needed most. If neither fear nor shame steps in to help us make the connect between head and heart, then it’s up to us to do it ourselves.
I’ve spoken on these pages about that critical split-second between the appearance of an impulse and the decision to act on it. This is the split-second of free will, the fragment in time when we get to choose whether to give in to the impulse or to squelch it. It’s crucial that we learn to recognize that moment of choice. So that we don’t overlook it. So that we use it, to choose wisely.
Self-knowledge is another vital component. Unless you know yourself from the inside-out, you won’t be able to figure out why it’s so hard for you to resist the urge to… gossip, give away secrets, blow up in a fury, tell lies to avoid trouble, and so on. You need to possess an intimate knowledge of your ego’s cravings and fears so that you can fight them. The advice to “know thine enemy” is like saying, “know thyself.” Because some of our worst enemies are lodged deep inside our own all-too-human psyches.
On a practical level, of course, is the tried-and-tested tactic of setting up fences for ourselves. For example, if you have a tendency to share negative gossip about someone because you feel envious or somehow threatened by her, your best bet would be to resolve never to bring up that person’s name with others. And if others bring her name up in your presence, to keep your lips closed and not say a word. Not one single word.
Each time you experience success in this re-training program, you’ll find brand-new habits becoming a little more solidly ingrained. Habits that include knowing your weak spots and shrewdly defending against them. This is a lifelong process—but we don’t have to wait a lifetime to taste the rewards. Within a surprisingly short time, we find that the satisfaction of controlling our negative impulses makes us feel better than any amount of negative self-indulgence possibly could.
Because, even more than the illusionary prizes we hope to win when we act wrongly, there is something that we want even more.
We want to be good.