“The true test of character is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don't know what to do.”
Last week, I heard an interesting story over lunch with a friend. The story was about one of my friend's friends, a woman who I'll refer to as Pam. Pam had been married to her husband Jim for close to 15 years and had an adorable tween daughter. However, during her 15th year of marriage, she disclosed to her girlfriends that she and Jim were going to get a divorce. Consequently, she asked for her friends to respect their privacy during this difficult time. As the months lingered on, Pam slowly drifted apart from her friends and stopped returning phone calls and other such queries into her well-being. A few months later, her friends got wind of a custody battle between Pam and Jim along with wafting information about the divorce turning into an ugly one. Her friends tried to reach out to her but she maintained her solitude.
Imagine her friends' surprise then when before the end of the year, Pam was heard to be in a relationship with another man in her workplace. Shocking still, by the beginning of the next year, Pam had married this man (Ron) and moved with him, and her daughter in tow, to another part of the country! The scenario gets messier when one considers the fact that Ron had also divorced his wife earlier in the year and had sent her, and his children packing back to their home country (with full understanding of the fact that in doing so, he would legally no longer be able to see his children ever again).
Hindsight is always 20-20 and in looking back on the months preceeding the divorce, Pam's friends could pinpoint times when Pam's whereabouts were not accounted for and where her stories about her day just didn't match up. With a wince, her friends realized that Pam had likely been cheating on her spouse a few months before she initiated the divorce. The same can probably be concluded about Ron. My heart went out to Pam's husband who had instantly lost, not just his wife, but also his daughter, and to Ron's wife who had lost her husband and her home in a flash.
The first thought that popped into my mind was "What were they thinking!" To this, my friend replied "They weren't thinking!" However, I disagreed with this- I argued that just like not making a decision is an actual decision, so is not thinking. When people don't think of one thing, it is usually because they are thinking of another. We are all familiar with the process of justifying our actions to others or rationalizing them to ourselves. No behavior was ever initiated because the person was not thinking, it comes around when a person is thinking about something other than what a majority of people would think. Gone is the objectivity in decision making due to the arrival of subjectivity in the process.
This was the part of the story that gave me food for thought: What governs our thought processes? How do we rationalize our way into initiating behaviors that are uncharacteristic of us and disgress from our ethical, moral code? What makes us selfish proponents of our own desires at the expense of the overall well being of those we vowed to take care of? One would argue that the explanation is as simple as the desire to be happy. However, if such were true, it would imply that humans have been sad, unhappy individuals for thousand of generations and have grown into happy, wholesome, and satisfied ones only recently in the evolutionary timeline. This is in stark contrast to what I see around me everyday- the faces of today's generation look more tired and beaten down than those of yesteryears'. If people were pursuing non-altruistic behaviors for the pursuit of happiness, then why are their lives less satisfying than that of their forefathers? Why do more people prefer the silent hum of a computer or cellphone to the chirpy interactions with family and friends? Happy people, by definition, should be happy, not on a perpetual pursuit of happiness. So perhaps then, there is something other than the simple explanation of wanting to be happy.
A quick glance into the theories of human behavior lists two such theories that might explain the thought process that occurs when people seemingly "don't think." One of these is a social constructionist's perspective called Symbolic Interactionism which suggests that we act according to how we define our situation. According to this theory, a person who considers him/herself to be a victim in a situation will act differently than one who considers him/herself a bystander, or the perpetuator etc. Depending on one's judgment of self, it might be easier to rationalize a course of action that leads one way instead of the other due to the need to make oneself happy.
This makes sense to me when I think of a less intense scenario- a person who has been following a strict diet may have a harder time resisting temptation when an ooey-gooey chocolate cake is in front of her because she can rationalize the situation by perhaps tell herself that she hasn't eaten sweetmeats in a long time and deserves a slice of the cake for torturing herself over the past few days/weeks (happiness in a slice...who wouldn't want that!). However, another person, one who feels less victimized and consequently more empowered may rationalize herself away from the slice of cake by taking stock of favorable outcomes of sticking to her diet.
On the other end of the spectrum lies the other theory I found that helps explain human behavior. This theory is based on a developmental perspective built upon a humanistic one- the Transpersonal Theory. It might sound a bit too new-age (or old-age I suppose) but it states that some people reach a level of development beyond the personal (ego-based) level into the transpersonal (beyond ego or self) level. At this level, there is an inherent tendency to express innate potentials for love, creativity and spirituality.
Perhaps this would explain why Lord Krishna surrounded himself with a plethora of Gopis to spread his love, why Vincent Van Gogh cut off his left ear to give to the woman of his desire, or why the practice of Polyamory (the desire, practice, or acceptance of having more than one loving, intimate relationship at a time) still survives in todays times. Perhaps some people get to a level of functioning where laws and rules created by society just don't matter anymore. Sure, it sounds a bit flaky, but who is to say its not a legit level of higher order intellectual functioning? I can certainly see it working when i think of those with lower order functioning than mine, mainly children. They don't posses the abilities of abstract thinking that grown-ups supposedly do which is why childrens usually do as they see, not as they think. One could argue that this order-based difference in intellectual hierarchy continues throughout the lifespan of a human being whereby some of us evolve farther than the confines of everyday moral and ethic codes whereas the rest of us just stay enmeshed in them for a lifetime.
In judging a person's character, we need to remain cognizant of the fact that we can only judge things from our perspective, the caveat being that our own perspective is heavily conditioned by our environment and intellect. Perhaps then it is safe to assume that even when people do things that appear morally wrong, they do so from a level of thinking where it isn't wrong. I for one, definitely like the idea of giving people the benefit of thought-process-oriented doubt because it makes me less repulsed by the selfish actions some people take. However, in the end, this could just be my way of rationalizing a situation to avoid an inner existential turmoil. *sigh*...theres no way around one's mind...is there?