Not I, No Not Ever: Or why you can easily be rendered a dumbass...

We have all been there. In fact, we probably have already found ourselves in a situation today where we felt comfortable in looking at someone else's actions, behaviors, or lack thereof, and rendering that closed-off judgment: Not me. Never me. I'd never do that, never think that, never feel that. And because I wouldn't, the other person is bad. 

Seriously, we appear to be hardwired to think we'd never do something that's dumbassed. Or dangerous. Or thoughtless.

A baby dies in a hot vehicle, and we think to ourselves, I'd never do that. What a horrible person! Until we look at the research on automatic processes. Until we learn that things like driving become automatic processes and if a person begins to think about something, the driving shifts from a conscious process to an automatic process, and the person is no longer in the driver's seat, so to speak. Once we know that, once we know that our hidden brain takes over for us when our frontal cortex has more important things to do, we know that parent never had a chance. That baby never had a chance. It wasn't neglectfullness. It wasn't a bad parent.

There are things we can do, though, to make sure that it's harder to go on autopilot, to trip us back into consciousness. If we have an infant (as reported on the Today Show two weeks ago), we could put our purse or our briefcase back by the infant's carrier so that we get tripped back into deliberate behavior.

A child wanders off. Not me. My kid wouldn't get away from me. What's the matter with those people? Until your kid does. Until you go to the restroom and your five year old decides she wants to go to Grandma's and it out the door.

We tell ourselves the convenient "Not I" over and over each day in order to provide ourselves with an illusion of control, because it is absolutely terrifying to think that the world is random and out of our control. It makes us feel safe and secure when we can blame other people for the bad things that happen to them.

A woman is raped. Not I. I'd never get myself into that situation. It must be her fault. Wouldn't that be much easier to live with the reality that we can do everything right and still have it all go so wrong?

Not I. Not me. Never me. I know better. I am armed with all the tools I need. Anybody whose kid gets hurt, dies, well, that's because they screwed up. It can't happen to me.  Until it does and you must make sense of what has happened. Most people can't handle admitting they were wrong. It takes a willingness to feel like shit, to feel remorse, to own it that most people can't do. Not because they don't want to, but because our brains are wired to keep us feeling pretty darn good about ourselves.

If we blame someone else for it, if we say it was specific to the situation, and that it will not happen again, then we protect ourselves. That's great if it's the truth. It's a recipe for disaster if it's not. If it really is our fault. If it's global, we make the same kinds of mistakes in other situations, and it happens time and time again, we have to own it, and it's a bitterly hard thing to do.

Here's why Stagliano, for example, is never likely to admit the horror that she put mining chelator in her children's food. Can you imagine owning that horror? No. It's too hard. How many of us can do that? Who would knowingly put mining chelator on their children's food? No one, and there's no doubt she didn't know it was. It's also likely you'll never convince her it is, because Boyd Haley is such a nice guy.

Wakefield looks like a nice guy, too. And he promises to help people. He offers answers. And he smiles and he makes eye contact. Who would knowingly put their children through an unnecessary colonoscopy and the prep? Especially an autistic kid? No one would. Some of us have had to have invasive tests done on our children because that's what their doctors told us was needed. How horrified would we be to realize we'd been sold a bill of goods and subjected our children to unnecessary trauma?

We each of us witness situations that make us feel uncomfortable, threatened. And we work hard to get away from feeling that vulnerability. We do that by judging others who have had misfortune and tragedy befall them. We say it could never happen to us, but the reality is that it can. We can make mistakes, we can make the best decisions possible, but because it was based on bad information, we can have it all go to hell.

Next time you find yourselves going "Not I" and dismissing the other person as somehow deserving of his fate, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps you'll pause and realize that the saying "There but for the grace of god, go I" stops that judgment cold and allows our compassion a chance to take hold.

We could easily have been in the angry places. We could easily have been. We may still find ourselves in other angry places. So, perhaps better to stop and think anything but Not I.


Big said...

While I have never had the misfortune of being involved in any of the situations mentioned, I have become the "I did" in situations where I once proclaimed "Not I". Before judging someone by saying "I never ..." try putting the word "yet" at the end of the sentence. Because you never can tell where life will drag you.

Clay said...

Okay, point made. And I was wrong for blaming someone in that situation.

KWombles said...

Actually Clay, I wasn't trying to press that point in with you. I really was referring to babies who've been forgotten by their parents. I once judged these parents harshly, believing it impossible for a good, conscientious parent to do such a thing. I know better now.

We don't know enough about the staff member's state of mind, nor the level of her dedication, nor her work ethic, nor enough about that day, despite the timeline, to judge whether she went on autopilot or whether she just didn't view Nevins as her responsibility.

Good psychological research peels the layers away, helping explain how and why we do things. :-) And as I learn more, I hope that I get less judgmental and more empathetic. There are lots of things I've changed my mind about as I've learned more about how our minds work.

Clay said...

No, I didn't take it personally, or think that was your "main point", but I just wanted to say that I stand corrected.

I can easily understand how it can happen with parents, but it gets harder to be understanding with someone who's supposed to be professionally responsible for others. Just "harder", is all.

KWombles said...

:-) Yes, it's still hard to understand. I think that accountability is necessary, but so is understanding how these kinds of things can happen. That's the only way to avoid these kinds of incidents.

One of those ways in the case at Woods would have been to have a checklists and policies in place so that vehicles are checked by two staff after a trip, to have clients' returns to the homes verified and called into a central location. These two things alone would have prevented this death.