Wednesday, August 3, 2011

have third thoughts

Second thoughts. We all have them. That bungee jump seemed like an incredibly good idea when we were sitting in our friend's living room, but now, standing on the edge of a huge cliff with only a bouncy rope to catch us... we begin to question our initial enthusiasm.

These uninvited thoughts can arrive when dealing with bigger things too... like having a child. In her July 31, 2011 blog entry on Anthropologa, the author writes: "I know it's only a few more days until this pregnancy is full-term, but, um... I'm not so sure this whole 'having a baby' thing was such a good idea." Turns out it was more fear than a real desire to reverse this irreversible decision.

Why second thoughts? It seems they so often emanate from places of fear. Well-thought out decisions are questioned irrationally in moments of panic. Brides or grooms get 'cold feet' when they have doubts about committing to that one person for the rest of their lives. Why cold feet? Apparently, this phrase has its origins in a Stephen Crane novel and was also used extensive in 'the Great War' when soldiers whose feet were handicapped by frost-bite could not proceed in battle. The term extended to cover all those men who feared entering combat. What I find interesting about the term is the physicality of it. Are second thoughts, then, more related to a gut reaction, to something we feel in our bones, whereas the initial decision may have been sited in our heads?

If you consider the two situations posed above (the bungee jump and the baby), they seem to suggest two different things about second thoughts. In the first case, second thoughts might be a good thing. A quick, perhaps peer-pressured decision is reevaluated. On the other hand, having doubts about the baby is both panicky and irreversible. Most people (I stress most) plan to have babies -- at least it's usually outlined in a couple's life plan. Thus, there is not a need for reevaluation so much as there is a need to face -- head-on (and quickly!!) -- concerns and apprehension about what the reality of a child will entail.

The brain is a funny thing. It seems as though we should be able to trust our thoughts, but so often that is not actually a good idea. These thoughts are OUR thoughts... they are not objective, nor always realistic. Often, people can so manipulate their own thoughts or perceptions so that they believe themselves to be something they so obviously are not. Look at Bernie Madoff or O. J. Simpson. So, are second thoughts more trustworthy? Or is it the process of rethinking that is the most dependable of all?

In that case, I would argue for third thoughts... and fourth and fifth... not to the point of indecisiveness, but rather as a continual process of self reevaluation, of reconsidering what you thought you knew, of thinking from new angles... basically of learning and growing. Second thoughts are also a hint, a nudge from your unconscious that you may not have all the answers. In that case, they may warrant a discussion with other people in order to see the situation through other eyes. Certainly good things CAN come out of second thoughts. Handel revised his Messiah because of second thoughts. A bomb was not dropped. A hurtful phrase went unsaid. Heidi Montag wouldn't have had all that plastic surgery. Certainly, I am going against the grain here to disagree with Malcolm Gladwell that the best decisions can usually be made in a "blink" and on instinct. I just don't see that to be the case.

In a broader sense, second thoughts as a people enable us to reconsider scientific, economic, or historical problems that appeared to have been resolved but were mistaken. We once thought the world was flat being one of the most obvious examples.

And have second thoughts proliferated as we become more disconnected from ourselves? The sociologist Robert Nisbet suggests in his book, The Quest for Community, that "it has become steadily clearer to me that alienation is one of the determining realities of the contemporary age. It will not do to relegate it to the realm of symbols which influence intellectuals and which do not, at first thought, seem to implicate the lives of others in society." As we are more alienated from each other, we are equally more estranged from ourselves. If this is the case, then our process of rethinking may be a process of reconnection to what we should have considered in the first place... but were too distracted or withdrawn to recognize.

Of course we will always have second thoughts. Decisions have to do with the future... and thus with the prediction of what our future selves will look like... and those are constantly changing. When we decide something, we are basing that decision on an anticipation of what our future self will look like. And, as we all know, that can change. Perhaps what is reassuring (rather than destabilizing) about second thoughts is that they are an assertion of our human autonomy. In her article, "Second Thoughts: Revoking Decisions Over One's Own Future" (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. LIV, No. 4, December 1994), Jennifer Radden addresses just this notion:
A central expression of autonomy is found in our ability to make a plan for ourselves and adhere to it. Emphasizing this view, Joel Feinberg argues that when a voluntary commitment is made, freely, on the basis of principles, and with alertness to the possible consequences which might ensue, it should be honored. He quotes with approval from Arneson, "The root idea of autonomy is that in making a voluntary choice a person takes on responsibility for all the foreseeable consequences to himself that flow from this voluntary choice" (p. 86). Others have put the point even more strongly. Full freedom, claims Schelling (p. 98) "entails" the freedom to bind oneself, to incur obligation, to reduce one's range of choice. In order that I be AS FREE AS POSSIBLE, Charles Fried insists, it is necessary that there be a way in which I may commit myself by making non-optional courses of conduct which would otherwise be optional for me.
I do not mean to take issue with the claim that the freedom to bind oneself is at the heart of our notion of autonomy: it seems incontrovertably true. However this aspect of autonomy is matched by another 'root idea', and another capability entailed in the notion of full freedom. A different expression of autonomy which is equally central, I would argue, is found in our ability to change our minds in the light of new ideas, beliefs, and desires. Failure to acknowledge this second expression of autonomy, and overemphasis on the first, has misled some thinkers, of whom Feinberg stands as a distinguished example, when they examine the moral status of advance directives, that is, of decisions we make designed to bind ourselves at some future time. More precisely, it is because of a failure to acknowledge the second root idea (our ability to change our minds), and its conflict with the first (our ability to plan ahead and take responsibility for the outcomes of our decisions), that Feinberg concludes advance directives should be morally binding and should be appropriately honored.
So, for tomorrow, acknowledge your ability to change your mind, your ability to see anew, the reality that you change at every moment and so the decision you initially made for yourself might not be right. Trust yourself, yes, but also allow room for the thoughts in your head... the ones that emanate not from a place of fear but from a place of growth.

1 comment:

  1. Relatedly, check out the counter to Gladwells "Blink" argument: Wray Herbert's On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits: