By Robert Paulson
Why is good advice so damned hard to follow? Don’t look into the sun. Looking into the sun can damage your vision. We have a solid body of medical science explaining how and why and what you can do to mitigate risk of damage. We have testimonials from individuals injured in this very manner. There are countless warnings from every conceivable source. And yet, here I sit with a throbbing headache and a burning after-image. Why?
Am I stupid? Presumably not. I’ve got a degree from a prestigious university. I earn a good salary performing technical work for a Fortune 500 company. I’m capable of lively discourse with other presumably intelligent individuals. If intelligence is a function of the Turing Test, I believe I’ve passed.
Was I compelled to commit this act of self-harm? No. I wasn’t strapped to a chair, my eyeballs pried open, forced to consume solar rays directly into my eyeballs like the protagonist of an Anthony Burgess novel. I wasn’t extorted or blackmailed. I made the conscious decision to repeatedly direct my eyes heavenward.
So what compelled this folly? I’m currently visiting St. Louis for a rare opportunity to witness a full solar eclipse. At the climax of this event, the sun will be completely obstructed by the moon, creating a celestial event visible with the naked eye. But in the run up to the eclipse, any individual interested in witnessing the moon’s gradual obstruction of the sun will need thick tinted glass (or plastic) to avoid being blinded. My particular pair of glasses fit poorly, and every look upward chanced direct sunlight coming over the top of the glasses and into my eyes, as I tried to focus on my subject.
Despite my best faith efforts to abide by good advice, I’m forced to choose between risking my eyesight and forgoing the reason for my trip. The good advice is only as good as the circumstances. My ability to judge long term damage to my vision while using imperfect protection relative to the long term dissatisfaction of missing the bulk of the eclipse is insufficient. And so I have made a series of snap decisions which can only be evaluated as wise or foolish in distant hindsight, days or perhaps even weeks after the event.
I tell this story, firstly, because I’m currently sitting in an airport with aching eyeballs and fond memories of a magical evening skywatching, trying to judge the merits of my short vacation. But secondly, because I’m stuck with a bigger question. How sane and rational have my decisions been, today? How sane and rational are they, everyday? What compels me to make choices and what can I do to improve my decision making, if anything?
Self-criticism is a difficult chore. Overestimation is easy, but pointless. Find yourself faultless and paralyze your growth as a person. Hold yourself perpetually at fault, and flail endlessly without recognizing when circumstances eclipse your capacity to improve them. Knowing the difference between what one can change and what one can’t is an essential step in self-improvement.
How does one make optimal decisions? And how does one know when to be satisfied with the decisions one has made?
That’s something I’d like to explore on this blog, going forward.