Have you ever had that experience where you had a confrontation with someone and only 20 minutes after the conversation did some zinger of a response come to you? Or lay awake at night rehashing a difficult conversation, wishing you’d handled it better?
Sure! Everyone has!
When forced to be reactive, we humans tend not to be our best selves. This isn’t just true for difficult conversations, it applies to morally challenging situations as well.
The fields of athletics, surgery, music, universally employ a tactic called “mental rehearsal” to improve performance. Mental rehearsal simply means to practice in the mind to prepare for action. It’s unreasonably effective for highly technical situations (source) to the point where it’s almost an unavoidable practice while training surgeons (source).
A wise friend taught me that this practice is useful in morally challenging situations as well.
Many difficult situations come as a surprise: physical altercations, a familial illness, relational misunderstandings, the child’s outburst, departures of coworkers, etc. Preparation in the moment is not always possible.
It can be helpful to “morally rehearse” well in advance, in order to prepare for situations you can anticipate. You cannot prepare for every situation, but taking the time to prepare for what you can anticipate will help inform how you react in situations you can’t anticipate.
Who do you want to be in challenging situations?
An exercise I find illuminating is to ask yourself: “What do you hope people say of you at your funeral?”
If you think through the last month of your life, how often could you say you were able to demonstrate those traits? I know for me it’s far less than I’d like.
It’s important to explicitly decide what traits you consider to be “good” and to start practicing them now. Goodness doesn’t develop without concerted, lifetime effort.
Goodness takes courage
However you define being or doing “good”, it will rub some people the wrong way.
When you stand up to a bully, it’ll rub the bully the wrong way at the very least. Stand up for any political issue on social media (even ones that really shouldn’t be controversial), and you’ll rub a lot of people the wrong way.
This is August Landmesser, he rubbed the Nazis the wrong way. Most people look at this picture and think they’d be like him in this situation. Few actually were, because being good has a cost.
August Landmesser was sentenced to forced labor, and died as cannon fodder for the Nazi front lines as part of a “Penal Infantry” unit all because he refused to obey Nazi laws.
It took tremendous courage to be August Landmesser, or Anne Frank, or Ghandi, or Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela, or any of the people that supported them at the time. It was important work, so they judged it worth the cost.
Not every morally challenging situation will be as extreme as Nazi Germany, but our heroes were mere mortals. They did the work they needed to do when it mattered, which takes practice.
What you do with little, you’ll do with much
What people do when the stakes are low tends to predict what they’ll do when the stakes are higher.
Doing the right thing in private, will help you be better about doing the right thing when it’s more visible.
Doing the right thing when the rewards for betraying your morals are small, will help you overcome the temptations when they’re more lucrative.
If honesty is important to you, don’t lie even about small things. If generosity is important to you, give in little ways until you can do more. Little practices every day build muscle until you’re ready to handle the most important moments.
Aim for admirable, not merely doing whatever is allowable
There is no upper limit on goodness. You get nothing for aiming at a “passing grade,” so aim high.
Not everyone will have the opportunity to have the impact of people like Nelson Mandela, but everyone can do the work to become as good as he was.
Name your heroes. Learn from what’s best about them. Don’t worship them. Update your list as you age.
Not all of your heroes should be famous, or come from textbooks; there are likely amazing people in your life to learn from. What’s best about that is you can actually talk to them to learn from them.
Empowering the next person
Leaders are people who just do what everyone wishes “someone” would do. People follow leaders, because the leader is doing what everyone wanted all along.
When you stand up to that asshole on the plane that’s being obnoxious to the flight staff, there are a dozen others that wish they’d done the same, and a hundred more that support you standing up.
For whatever reason, taking a stand also seems to shake up people’s imagination. When you stand against a bad thing, people start to think it’s possible for them to do the same in the future. Without good role models, many folks remain passive, and continue to let bad things happen.
Be the role model for those folks. You’ll change people.
For such a time as this
“We live in interesting times” is a bit of an understatement. The 2020s seem like a unique decade in history where every part of life has been or could be irrevocably altered in a very short span of time. The confluence of epic global struggles and numerous extraordinary technological leaps stands to change everything.
Titanic geopolitical shifts are happening in plain view. Humanity is stumbling through a haphazard industrial revolution to decarbonize. Advances in digital intelligence are beginning to automate large swaths of the global economy. Advances in biotechnology look like they’ll take shots at curing cancer, radically slowing aging, as well as proliferating bioweapons, and offering humans the ability to edit their children.
There’s also the more pernicious trends (at least in the US) of increased willingness to commit violence to advance political agendas. The increase in book bannings. Politicians taking more control over our money, our schools, and what we can do with our bodies.
What the world looks like in 20 years, comes down to what we decide is important and how we treat each other through these upcoming changes.
Are we going to stand against violence, oppression, poverty, and hate? Are we willing to sacrifice so that our children and grandchildren live in a better world? Or will we be passive, worship comfort, and let the more ruthless among us have their way with the future?
The world needs you.