Second Thoughts

Reflections in Recovery

Dr. Bob, Anne Smith, Bill W., and AA friends in California in 1940’s
It sometimes happens that we make a major decision and then we begin to doubt ourselves. Are we doing the right thing? Maybe we need to reconsider. We go back over the reasons why we made the decision and they all seem to be good. Yet we’re still not sure. We feel conflicted. We wonder if we’re making a mistake.

Anonymous Ann is in such a situation. She makes a decision to sell her apartment and move back up North. This after nine years of living in relative happiness in a retirement community in the South. But she’s been living alone all this time and, as she moves further into the “aging and ailing” stage of life, she thinks she ought to be near family. She’s thought about it at length, considered all the pros and cons, prayed for guidance, and discussed it with friends and relatives, all of whom agree she’s doing the right thing.

Despite all of this, however, Ann keeps having second thoughts, and she finds her indecision unsettling. She remembers how easy it was to make decisions when she drank. Not the stable sort, she made lots of changes, always involving her external circumstances and usually prodded by anger, fear, resentment, depression, and other troubled emotions. She was decisive, but hardly wise. Since she now has double-digit sobriety and has gained a good handle on her emotions, Ann thought she should be able to decide things more rationally, and should therefore feel pretty confident about her decision to move.  

But she didn't. As she studied and pondered the matter, Ann made an interesting discovery: being more rational doesn’t necessarily mean being more certain. The opposite may actually be the case. There’s a psychological explanation for this: reason is not a good motivator of action. We may have perfectly rational grounds for deciding to do something, but reason itself will not move us to act. To move, we need to be moved.  

Even when we are trying to be rational, the moving force behind the decisions we make is less likely to be reason than emotion. The stronger the emotion, the stronger the impulse to make a decision and to act on it, and the fewer and weaker the doubts. Conversely, the weaker the emotion, the greater the tendency to hesitate and waver as we try to decide on primarily rational grounds and “analysis paralysis” sets in.

This is what happened to Ann. Her reasoning was strong, but her emotions weak. Weak, but not absent. Contrary to what she had first believed, her decision was not purely rational. Emotion had been a factor all along. Her initial thinking about moving was prompted by recent (though not overly serious) health problems. This had naturally raised some fear about growing older and getting sick and being all alone and away from family.

A little anger had also played a role. She held a responsible position in her condo association and had experienced first-hand the meaning of the old saying that “no good deed goes unpunished.” Though she had made progress tempering her anger, situations arose when it still got the better of her. And when it did, a geographic seemed like a natural option. It was the flight response at work, caused not by fear but by a sort of low-level, slightly retaliatory resentment which said: To hell with it all, I’m out of here.

But because the emotions underlying her decision lacked force, they fluctuated and ran up against each other. When her fear of illness subsided, or her memory of a neighbor’s contentiousness at a meeting faded, she didn’t feel that strongly about moving. At such moments, other emotions would surface which would make her question her judgment. She would worry about the winters up North, or about not being able to afford the high cost of living there, or about becoming dependent on relatives. She would then recall all the good reasons she had for moving South in the first place, the proximity of the beach not being the least. But then a neighbor would act up again, or another slightly worrisome test result—or a friend’s death—would remind her once more of her mortality, and the emotional pendulum would swing in the opposite direction. And so it went. No one emotion was powerful enough to overcome and exclude the other.

Ann was not exactly wracked with conflict, because her feelings were not sufficiently strong to have that effect. But she lacked the certainty she desired. She would find herself having to fall back upon reason to tame her doubts and keep propping up what she knew was a right decision.

“In this world, second thoughts, it seems, are best,” Euripides is reported to have said. Whether best or not, they are often inevitable. Our desire for certainty in decision-making is understandable, but not always achievable. Any decision we make that affects something of sufficient value to us may bring a feeling of uncertainty with it.

For a very long time (at least since the time of Plato), it was thought that reason and emotion were separate faculties, that we had two selves, one rational, the other emotional, and that all our problems arose from the metaphorical heart, which should therefore be under the control of the metaphorical head.

As Bill W. shows in his article on emotional sobriety ("The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety"), it doesn’t quite seem to work out that way. Modern thought and neuroscience are with him on this. Reason and emotion function together. The power of the one over the other is limited. Reason may guide, but it doesn’t move. And because we need to move, we need to act upon the world, the emotions are essential. They cannot be excluded from the decisions and the choices that we make. Contrary to the saying we sometimes hear in the rooms, feelings are definitely facts. But we may get the facts wrong.

Wisdom helps to get them right. Wisdom is the character trait or virtue which governs right decision, and it partakes of emotion no less than of reason, harmonizing the two and allowing us to decide and act rightly.

This, Ann was doing her best to practice, even if she was not always conscious of all its ramifications. She had come to see what was really important in life and had made an accurate assessment of her situation. These are both central aspects of wisdom. While she had other concerns, other things which had meaning or value for her, she was able to order these things rightly and thus diminish the tension between them. Health and family came first. She took the time to reflect, considered the possible consequences of her move, allowed herself to experience the various emotions which resulted from shifting perspectives and concerns, and openly sought advice.

But wisdom is no guarantee of certainty either. In fact, knowing and accepting the inevitability of uncertainty is in itself an expression of wisdom. Conflicts and doubts cannot always be resolved. Having ascertained to the best of our ability that in making a decision we are seeing things rightly and properly ordering our concerns, there’s nothing left to do but to practice Step 3 and turn the matter over. Being human, we can’t know for sure. Hence wisdom calls for humility and surrender. Thy will, not mine, be done.

[Posted 07/13/13. Image: Dr. Bob, Anne Smith, Bill W., and AA friends in 1940's California.]

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