The human capacity to make bad choices simply astounds me. Bentham probably had it right that people, in general, desire to make choices that lead to pleasure and avoid pain, so it is painful indeed to witness deliberate choices that have such predictably painful outcomes yet are made with the illusory hope that something good will happen. Most of the street people I used to work with never intended to live the way they did, and they usually had some sort of plan for making a new decision today that would lead to a better life tomorrow. Most of those plans made no practical sense, and the predictable outcomes were not promising. Two teenage girls I know, both fetal drug and alcohol babies themselves, are pregnant and have some vague idea about becoming good moms living ordinary small town lives in comfort. But with little education, poor coping skills and no job prospects, their day-to-day decisions are leading them farther into a Dickensian darkness in spite of the competent care and wise counsel they have been receiving from others.
Part of it has to do, I suspect, not only with the failure to look ahead at the probable consequences of any given decision, but also with the inability or unwillingness to do so. Whether that inability is inherent or due simply to a lack of education and training, I don’t know. An old Club of Rome report once asserted that the huge majority of human beings live in tiny little worlds of concrete immediacy with no desire or ability to think in the abstract, envision a long term future, or calculate consequences, and had a deep suspicion of, rather than appreciation for, those who do. The Club of Rome is not known for the accuracy of its own thinking, so take it for what it’s worth. The point is that it’s not just about street people or teenage moms. The net is far broader than that. For example, it seemed to me that the so called tea-baggers of recent weeks displayed pretty much the same kind of decision making incompetence. They are scared to death, want immediate action to relieve their fears, and the action they want would almost certainly lead in the opposite direction. Many of my very earnest right-wing friends seem to fall into the same hole right along with the far left-wingers of my acquaintance. They are both driven by fear and half baked ideas anticipating hoped for but highly unlikely good consequences while ignoring undesired but more likely bad consequences. Every now and then, one of them actually gets enough power to act and we end up with something like Gingrich’s Contract with America and its disastrous results.
I’d like to claim purity for myself, but honest reflection doesn’t allow it. I have had my own share of stupid decisions made with little consideration for probable consequences, and it’s only a combination of fortuitous luck and God’s amazing grace that have kept the worst from happening and the best often near by. I doubt that the people around Jesus were much different. The gospel record suggests that his disciples could be especially dense about decisions and consequences. What is startling unique is that, in the light of the resurrection, they were able to make a break with centuries of tradition and custom, lay their worst fears aside, calmly assess the consequences, both near and far, and make decisions to follow where Christ had already led. Perhaps that is an overlooked aspect of discipleship formation for our own day that could have a tremendous impact on the lives of ordinary, well educated, middle class people like me, political leadership at all levels, and a host of self-destructive social behaviors.