Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Personal Strength of Rationality - Think Before You Act

I read in the newspaper about a San Antonio man who shot his friend to death outside a bar. Apparently the friend owed him money and refused to pay. When their argument got physical, they were asked to leave. Out in the parking lot, one of the men pulled out a gun and fired twice at the other. His friend died at the scene.

Although violent and shocking, the story sounded familiar—the kind of thing that happens in a big city. On the other hand, I found it difficult to imagine the mindset of someone who would do that. One moment the young man was angry, the next moment his friend was dead, and he was in a police car headed towards a trial and a possible death sentence—or life in prison, if he’s lucky.  His life was ruined.

What was he thinking? The answer is that he probably wasn’t thinking much at all. He was reacting emotionally without letting the rational part of his mind help him decide what to do. And I thought: maybe thinking rationally isn’t one of his strengths.

When I was a young man I wasn’t as rational as I am now. People who know me might be surprised at that statement. I was never like the young man with the gun. Far from it. I was the top student in my class from the first grade all the way through high school. Even as a youth I had good reasoning abilities.

But I also had the mind and heart of a poet. I wrote poetry in high school and was the editor of the literary magazine. I had a romantic, idealistic frame of mind. Later, at West Point, I published a few poems. My English professors were so impressed that after graduation they arranged for me to get a degree in English at Duke University and return to West Point to teach. At Duke, my poems were published regularly in the literary journal and one of them won the annual Academy of American Poets poetry prize. While teaching English at West Point, I co-authored a book of poems. It’s who I was back then.

I recall an earlier incident as a cadet that made me realize I needed to work harder on my ability to think before I act. During my second year I had a Sunday date with a charming young woman. As we walked along the Hudson River, I was so enthralled with her that I lost track of time and missed the required formation for supper. I had plenty of time to think about that during the coming month, when I reported for inspection and two-hour marching sessions during the weekends, instead of spending more time with my lady friend.

West Point and my subsequent 20-year career in the Army were good for me that way. My duties required me to exercise logic so often that the pattern became a true strength. I feel that today my right brain and my left brain sing a two-part harmony from the same sheet of music. I’m as reasonable, analytical and strategic as I ever hope to be. And while I’m even more passionate and creative than ever, I exercise these strengths mostly to help others.

In almost everything we do, life engages our emotions. So it’s not always easy to be rational. But exercising that strength can help you get what you want. It can even save your life.

I’m reminded of the story of a friend of mine. She’s passionate and spontaneous, but she’s trained her mind to be logical as well. When I knew her, she had a Ph.D. in nutrition and made a good living consulting as an expert witness in trials where evidence related to nutrition was needed.

When she was about forty, she and her husband adopted a little girl. Knowing that several women in her family had died from breast cancer, she feared that she carried a gene that could cause her to develop breast cancer herself. She wanted to be sure that she was there for her child’s growing up years, so she decided to have a double mastectomy to eliminate the possibility altogether. 

While her decision was rational, a lot of women might consider it unthinkable. But my friend’s judgment proved correct. After the operation, the doctors found cancer in both breasts. While it was in the very early stage, if she had kept her breasts her worst fears would have come to pass.

How does one become more rational? According to Aristotle, one becomes more rational by thinking rational thoughts. Yes, it helps to learn to play chess, read more and work crossword and Sudoku puzzles. But I think the best learning opportunities have to do with decisions. Think about the consequences of various courses of actions. What are the risks? What are the rewards? What are the costs? What are the benefits? Spontaneity is fine, but if you can make yourself think things through before you take action, your ability to think and act rationally will get stronger.

Here's another Fortune Cookie for you...

Pay attention to what reason teaches, or she'll rap you on the knuckles.

The story behind the Fortune Cookies...

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength . (License to use photo purchased from Istockphoto.com)


Megan Zuniga said...

That's a very scary story. No amount of money is worth a life--especially not a life of a friend. This is why when we are emotional, we shouldn't be confronting people. We say things/do things we will later regret. That story still shocks me. I mean how can he ever bring his friend back :( It's not worth it.

Tkumah ATD said...

I cannot help but wonder if the operation was the only way to cure breast cancer. I could not do what this courageous and rational woman did. I would have seeked the causation of why it is going around in the family.
Saying that I claim that I have a clue and yet for herself that woman did good.
Is it really a conflict of mind and heart or is it the ability to handle pain thrown at you by the environment?
Very thoughts provoking and very much on my edge of interest as I research the iron will of the mask.
I believe that discipline has its rewards and down faults mainly because it creates people who are so rational and predictable.
It takes discipline for a soldier to kill and survive after.
Very interesting story and still kind of shocking.
Is it not her intuition rather than her rational that spoke to her?
As I said very thoughts provoking...
Thanks for sharing.

Ping-fa said...

THE definite text on control - published 2300 years ago by the most successful national leader - ever.