A few days ago as I was walking down the street, I came upon a man in a wheelchair with an outstretched arm and a cup in his hand. My fingers searched my pocket, fingering some coins. But before I knew it I was past him, with my own hand squeezing the coins I had intended to put in his cup. Just a moment, and another good impulse rejected.
This isn't just a confession- it's a single case report that raises an important question. What happened inside of me as I walked on by? How did my unconscious decision tree lead to a "no" instead of a "yes" in the space of a moment? Because in this regard I don't believe I'm that much different than anyone else with regard to wanting to do the right thing, and changing my mind when push comes to shove.
There's such a thing as being too impulsive, and there's such a thing as not being impulsive enough. For those problems in the world that we know how to address-and yes, there are plenty of those-the bigger problem is we that we don't follow our best inclinations. Good impulses can get waylaid in just a moment.
Let's try thinking positive about this. If you're like me, and your friends and relations are like you, and we took all our collective moments and added them up, just think of all the positive action this could generate. Imagine if everyone who had a good intention took that moment, and tipped it toward doing the right thing?
Let me dress up this koombayah idea up in more serious language. I propose that there is merit in the study of the internal conscious and unconscious cognitive and affective processes that inhibit us from acting upon our best impulses, and that a deeper understanding of these processes is relevant to the health and well being of our society. If contemporary science could figure out what goes into The Moment, it would be an enormous contribution to Public Health, right up there with handwashing. (After all, it's one thing to know you need to wash your hands. It's another to do it.)
But how in the world can we approach a problem like this in a scientific manner? How can we study conscious and unconscious cognitive and affective processes? After all, these processes go on inside of us, they're subjective- far beyond the reach of MRI's and devices of that nature that provide quantifiable data about what goes on in our brains. We're talking about what goes on in peoples' minds.
Of course there is a field that studies these subjective processes. IT"S CALLED PSYCHOANALYSIS. While we typically think of psychoanalytic thinking in the context of therapy, psychoanalysis is much more than a brand of treatment. It provides us with a way of looking at subjective experience, a way of thinking about it, and a way of talking about it. It also provides us, potentially, with a way of studying the conscious and unconscious cognitive and affective experiences that shape the actions we take in the world, as well as the actions we don't take. Like in the case report I presented above.
Dante said that“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” While I don't believe in hell, and and don't know who assigns reserved seats there, I would say that inaction is a major problem when it comes to addressing the Public Health issues facing us here in this world, and that the consequences of not acknowledging this problem are, if not hellish, really bad for our collective health.
So to all you psychoanalysts out there: This is territory where we should be leading the way, as major contributors to understanding the psychology of good citizenship, including the internal factors that keep us from being the best citizens we can be and addressing the problems we do in fact know how to solve. Like in my instance, acknowledging the existence of the homeless man that I walked past by parting with some coins that I could afford to give away.
Can we afford not to?