One of the many interesting things about getting older is how the wisdom of those who had gotten older while we were still young takes on real meaning when we finally get old enough to understand what they were saying in the first place. Even as a child, I knew Daddy was smart, but I couldn’t see his wisdom until I got later.
I remember a dinner table conversation when I was in high school about a man who was working for Daddy on one of his rigs as a driller. He had an offer from another contractor to become a toolpusher. (Now, for those who aren’t familiar with oil field terms, the driller basically runs the rig during a shift while the toolpusher is responsible for the operation of the rig and the several drillers who keep it running.) This fellow was one of his best drillers, but Daddy didn’t think he was ready for the additional responsibilities of being a toolpusher. Looking back, I think Daddy saw a lot of himself in this driller, but he let the guy go to the other contractor saying, “People do what they want to do.”
Sure, “people” who aren’t straight white guys may not be able to do what they want. But at the level of decision making on a daily basis, we all make choices. We do what we want to do, within the parameters of our options. We stay in jobs when we should take risks; we take risks when we shouldn’t. We stay in relationships we should leave; we leave relationships in which we should stay. Even when it comes to having that third martini (which will put us under the table) or the fourth (which will put us under our host), I believe Dorothy Parker would agree that we do what we want to do.
Mother, on the other hand, had a slight variation on this theme. She would say, “People believe what they want to believe.” What she might have thought of as “wishful thinking” is leads to what we now know as confirmation bias. Because we tend to seek out and interpret information so as to reinforce our existing beliefs, we can make some God-awful decisions. If we look again at risk and relationships (as well as those additional martinis) and couple it with this bias, we get a toxic mix of doing what we want to do because we believe what we want to believe.
Critical thinking and curiosity are riding in the backseat these days while it seems the majority of us have picked a side and joined a tribe. It’s rather ironic, isn’t it, that in a 21st century America where we have become more comfortable—or at least less uncomfortable—with non-binary sexual orientation and gender that our two-party system is more rigid that it has been in my memory.
So what should we believe and what should we do? Well, I don’t know. But even I did know and I said what we should believe, chances are that information would be discarded if it conflicted with those pre-existing beliefs. And if I knew what we should do? Well, we do what we want to do any way, don’t we?
I wonder what happened to that driller who took the toolpusher job. Siding with Daddy, I should hope he failed. But the welfare of that guy’s family depended on his being successful. So it’s more important that he was right to take the job. Even if Daddy was wrong, it didn’t affect us. And all of us are wrong at some time or the other.
That’s another one of those interesting things about getting older. Being wrong isn’t as scary as it used to be—unless you’re one of those inflexible folks who have been on the planet for the better part of a century and still haven’t learned a damned thing. After a virtual lifetime of believing and doing what we want, we can put on that critical thinking hat and look back to find out where we were wrong. It’s as if doing that leads to, oh I don’t know, a little bit of wisdom.
So, go ahead and do what you wanna do. Just as long as you know you gotta be a judge and the jury, too.