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The Right Instincts

September 13, 2014

Let’s have a quick psychological evaluation!

You are hurrying along to a vital lecture on a university open day. You stop to gather your bearings, momentarily lost. Something moves in your peripheral vision, and you hear plastic clatter against the floor. You turn. Its a credit card. You are very certain whose wallet the card fell out of. Said person is blissfully unaware of their loss, standing in a long queue for food. Do you:

  1. Leave it – you have a lecture to go to.
  2. Take it – you’re not sure whose card it is, and its better that you have it than some lowlife.
  3. Take it – you deserve a little luck going your way.
  4. Leave it – How can you be 100% sure whose card it was? You don’t want to give it to the wrong person, do you?
  5. Immediately alert the credit card holder and give them back the card.

You picked option e, right? Great. Oh, there’s somebody who didn’t? Well…

Its easy enough to recognise the ‘right option’ from your detached observer status at your computer, with armchair philosophy at your side. But, in the heat of the moment, would you? Are you sure that you wouldn’t start to ask ‘How can you be 100% sure’ and become paralysed by inaction?

In the heat of the moment you’ll react instinctively. A lifetime of habits will assert themselves. Apathy, indecision, aggression, shyness, charity… You see, while you can plan a great many things – buying a car, hosting a dinner party etc. – you can’t plan out your entire day and your reactions to unforseen events.

You need the right instincts. The right instinctive reactions.

That story of the credit card actually occurred last week. I’m pleased to say that I ‘chose’ option e. Now, you may have noticed that I put chose in quotation marks. Why? Because I didn’t think about what I did. One moment I saw the card, and the next the card was in my hand, and my other hand grabbing the fellow’s attention. There wasn’t a thought or deliberation to it.

To continue the self-aggrandisement for a bit, let me give another example from a month back. I was just beginning my afternoon tea when I saw my father sweeping part of the backyard – my job. Of course, the backyard wasn’t that dirty, and I was going to do it the next day when it would normally be done. Surely, there was no dereliction of duty. I took one bite of my afternoon tea, and how sour the sweet fruit tasted.

Immediately, I went to join my father and we efficiently swept up. I apologised for not being more prompt.

I wouldn’t call those actions of mine ‘the right instincts’ or ‘good instincts’. However, I do like to think that they’re acceptably decent ethics. ‘Just what any decent fellow would do’, you might say.

But I’m no paragon of virtue. Earlier this week a lady I know accosted me of being ‘condescending’ when I spoke to her. Now, on the specific charge which prompted the outburst, I was arguably in the right – there had been a misunderstanding – and the lady apologised. But I was certainly humbled, for there had to be some truth to the claim – in the heat of the moment one says things they otherwise would ‘keep a lid on’. My instinctive tone of voice in some situations, however few, was condescending to this lady. That’s not how it should be.

The good news, however, is that you can foster good instincts. You can gain the ‘right’ instincts through hard work and persistence. Whether you wipe your feet on the doormat, whether you wait to be told to do that chore, that task, is up to you. You’re not born as a person who wipes their feet at the door.

Rather, you practice repeatedly, till it moves from your doing it consciously to doing it unconsciously. If you think back to your childhood your parents probably did this. Use your knife and fork every night. Learn to use chopsticks. ‘Take off your shoes, dear.’ Pack your bag the night before. ‘Brush your teeth before you go to bed, son.’

You brush your teeth each day now, don’t you?

You do, because over time you acquired good habits, not because you pondered the benefits of brushing your teeth.

Now, don’t get me wrong, you need to plan, to learn what the ‘right’ instinct is, else you can’t practice it. But, the way to learn is by application – its scientifically the best way to remember. By doing, by acting… by active engagement. Over and over and over again. Because you will do, and then you will understand.

And perhaps, you shall have the right instincts.

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