“I really want to understand myself….or do I?”

Years ago, when I was in training to become a master practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), we did a “self-knowledge” exercise, the implications of which were so frightening that all the students, with two exceptions (one of which was yours truly), ran for emotional cover rather than finish it. Instead of going deeper into the exercise they strayed into small talk, as if by tacit agreement.

What was so frightening to this group of explorers of the mind?The exercise was this: “Imagine an action you could physically do, but under ordinary circumstances would not want to do. Under what set of circumstances would you do it?” Every one got that far. “Under this new set of circumstances, what is something you could physically do but would not want to do?” I can’t speak to what others were thinking, but I could clearly see where this was leading. Each set of circumstances would be more extreme, more painful and coercive. Finally, I would be confronted with something I would not be willing to do under any circumstances. Or worse than that, I would realize that I was capable of doing anything that relieved the pressure.

It was this latter revelation that, in my opinion, my fellow classmates were loath to face. What if there is nothing so bad or wrong that I wouldn’t do it to save myself, or a loved one, pain or injury or death? What is my final stand? Do I even have one, or am I really a slave to expediency?

My exercise went like this: I could spit in my mother’s face, but I wouldn’t. If someone held a gun to her head and demanded that I spit in her face, I would do it. If that gun were still at her head in the next iteration of the exercise, what would I be unwilling to do? How about killing an innocent person? Would I do that to avoid my mother being shot in the head? I said I would not be willing to kill an innocent person even to save my own mother.

Now that I am married with three adult children, it becomes an even more difficult choice. What if the gun was on my wife or daughters? Would I be willing to kill an innocent person to save one of them? This kind of moral dilemma is only a dilemma if you have no comprehensive theology. What do I mean? I believe that my wife and daughters are sealed for salvation by Christ, and when they die will be with Him in heaven. That would be true regardless of how they died. If I killed an innocent person to give them more time before death, my action would show that I either don’t believe the previous sentences, or place my emotions above my moral code and belief in the goodness of God.

Without that theology, I would have no basis beyond my emotions to base such a decision on. This kind of dilemma is very popular as a plot line in movies and tv shows about terrorism or criminals. It’s been used recently on Homeland, 24 Legacy, Blacklist Redemption, Taken¬†and more, and in all those cases the protagonist or hero opted to save their loved one. Since that was tv, they all managed to both save their loved ones and foil the bad guys. In real life, what would you do? Do you really know? Do you really want to know? Maybe not.

Why straight and narrow is a good thing…

….unless you are driving on a mountain road, in which case it might be better to take the curves. Jesus said “Enter by the narrow gate. For the way is wide and the path is easy that leads to destruction and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Matthew 7:13.

“The way is wide and the path is easy that leads to destruction.” Jesus could have been speaking about many things, though in this case he was referring to salvation, but the words apply to any difficult decision. This is a recurring theme with me, but one that cannot be overemphasized. We human beings know this, but in our infinite capacity to rationalize the easy way, we seem to find perfectly logical reasons for putting off the hard decisions and actions, and doing what feels good and “natural.”

How do you rationalize it? What arguments allow you to reject good counsel? Let’s imagine that you are taking this post personally and want to argue with me that some decisions you recently made were just fine, even though they were shortcuts. From my experience, the rationalizations tend to follow a pattern. Do any of the following sound familiar?

1. “You don’t understand, it’s different for me.”

2. “Just one more time, then l will stop.”

3. “Who are you to judge me?”

4. “What’s the big deal? Everyone does it.”

5. “If I didn’t do it, someone else would have.”

6. “If I didn’t really need this, I wouldn’t have taken it.”

7. “I don’t have the time to do it right.”

I am also subject to rationalizing. We all are to some extent, because at the time we are doing it, our rationale seems logical. Knowing this, I discovered a pretty effective way to get beyond the expediency. ¬†Before I was shipped off to Vietnam, I did a lot of reading about crimes of expediency committed in anger or fear by some of our troops there. So I asked myself, “what might I be tempted to do over there that I couldn’t live with if I return home?” The most likely would be the taking revenge on civilians for the deaths of my buddies.

So I made a list of what I would not do, even if ordered to or tempted to. This list represented the uncrossable line. I was exposed to most of the temptations I expected. But when anger or fear kicked in I was able to live out my commitment to stay on the narrow path, because I had laid it out ahead of time, giving me enough distance from the expedient and the emotional to stay on the right side of the uncrossable line.

Lest you think this is about me bragging (giving you a great excuse to ignore the counsel), it isn’t. It’s about the strategy: Doing the right things requires a prior commitment, a path you have thought about and committed to, so that when temptation comes, you know where your line is. Perhaps this is why I have never experienced PTSD symptoms from Vietnam–I was able to avoid doing what I couldn’t have lived with.