When we think of ourselves and who we are as people, we can easily fall into a trap where the best parts of who we are standout and shine, while the worst parts of ourselves are hidden in the shadows where we are not able to recognize them. We are rational beings, and we are so good at being rational that we can explain away almost anything. Our bad behaviors are never just our own bad behaviors but they are a result of someone else’s bad behaviors in the first place, and our bad habits really are not habits and they really are not that bad, and our lack of initiative on that thing we tell everyone we are working on is due to how hard we work on everything else and how busy we are. In the end, we paint a picture of ourselves in our mind that makes us really awesome. Our decisions are motivated by all the right reasons and we are on the correct side of any given political debate, parental decision, and freeway driving style.
Ta-Nehisi Coats grew up constantly questioning and challenging this instinctual way of thinking. In my last post I described his mother’s method of punishment when he got in trouble as a school child. His mother would make him sit down and write about his poor behavior and answer questions about why he was disrespectful, why his behavior was frowned upon by his teachers and by society, and why he thought it was ok for him to do the things that got him in trouble. He explains that all this writing did little to change his actual behavior as a child, but it gave him a unique skillset, the ability to look at the world, ask why it was the way it was and why people acted the way they did, and to then turn inward and ask if he himself acted the way that others did, and why he acted as he did. His mother built a sense of self-awareness in him that shaped his life and the way he understood the world.
What Coats found when he became more reflective of himself was a world that was not as innocent as many have believed growing up. Each time he got in trouble he was forced to recognize that he was not the perfect person that he wanted to see in the mirror. He was forced to acknowledge his shortcomings and negative instincts, and he began to make connections from himself and his behaviors to other people. About his reflective writing Coats writes, “Here was the lesson: I was not an innocent. My impulses were not filled with unfailing virtue. And feeling that I was as human as anyone, this must be true for other humans. If I was not innocent, then they were not innocent. Could this mix of motivation also affect the stories they tell? The cities they built? The country they claimed as given to them by God?”
We all act in ways that best serve ourselves, or ways that we think will best serve ourselves and our tribe. We shape the stories we tell about the nature of the universe to align with the lifestyle, the privileges, and the opportunities we have. This is part of our human nature, evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. When left unchecked, this part of us does not always lead to perfect outcomes for everyone. Our impulses may lead to tribal decisions that reflect discriminatory biases and our habits may disempower other people. If we cannot build a practice of self-reflection in our own lives, then we end up searching out and defending our decisions with information that is comforting to us, but not connected with the reality of our actions and the reality of the world that other people live within. Coats began to question the world around him because he understood his impulses and his own thoughts and behaviors. He understood why he got in trouble, and began to see that other people were not just the perfect individuals they presented as, but dealt with the same impulses and the same dark side that he dealt with. From this perspective, Coats could ask new questions of himself, his society, and how everyone built a shared understanding of who they were and where they came from.