I’ve always been intrigued by Thought Experiments: the kind that place you in stressful situations and reveal your deepest values when faced with various dire circumstances. Many of us have had some version of a Values class, or training; or maybe we engaged in such Experiments to pass the time: “You have to leave your house in an emergency and can only take what you can carry in your arms; what will you grab?” “You’re cast adrift in the ocean and can only help your spouse or your child survive (one or the other); who will you save?”
I can recall many years ago, when now-global celebrity Oprah Winfrey had barely begun airing her television program, one of her guests was a psychologist who ran selected audience members through these two scenarios. Although I didn’t watch her program routinely (it aired while I was at work), the show must’ve been on when I was on holiday, because I happened to tune-in while scrolling through channels. It was memorable, on several levels.
I can still recall the wild uproar ( audience members – mostly female — were literally on their feet ) when one woman in particular told everyone in the studio that day that she would most definitely save her husband, as opposed to her drowning child, if forced to choose. Now, Winfrey’s a pretty cool head, but she didn’t seem prepared for the reaction of the crowd as it processed this statement. (The woman’s rationale, as she tried to justify her choice over the din of the audience, was “I can always have more children, but I could never replace my husband!”)
I wonder if Security had to escort the woman from the building at the end of the show? Seldom have I seen so many women – a few even in tears – look like they might tear one of their own limb from limb. It was a Thought Experiment run amok, in my opinion: there wasn’t really room for discussion after that – just an enormous tidal wave of emotion that Winfrey immediately tried to quell with a commercial break.
Our value systems are, in large part, uniquely personal. It’s clarifying and even helpful to explore and talk about what matters to us; what’s really important in our lives. Doing so during pivotal moments, or times of stress, can facilitate wise choices and prevent mental or emotional ‘overload’.
As human beings we share in collective value systems that are deeply tied to our cultures. In the above scenario, where the unfortunate woman became a target for admitting that she could withstand losing her child, but not her husband, onlookers left no doubt in anyone’s mind that her choice was a major Taboo. In most of the world’s cultures, children are automatically bestowed with a kind of sanctity that adults are not; regardless of any religious backdrop for this fundamental belief. Which really makes me wonder about the ongoing digression from care and consideration for our most vulnerable in society: those that we’ll rely upon as we all inevitably age.
Several important people throughout history (Gandhi, writer and novelist Pearl S. Buck, and political U.S. presidential candidate of long ago, Hubert Humphrey, to name a few) have stated their values publicly, when it comes to protecting the “weakest members” of society. Using various words and phrases, these three proclaimed that the morality of any society could be gauged by how it treated “those at the dawn of life, and those at the sunset of life”: children and the elderly. (Gandhi, by the way, also included all animals when he defined those needing and deserving extra care and protection.)
Here in the United States, I wonder about the difference between our espoused values, and the values that we actually act on in our daily lives. I noticed that a particular politician in the U.S. recently cried-out about gun violence, only when it became apparent that his young daughter could have easily been a victim, due to her proximity to the killer during a recent mass shooting.
What do we really believe? Do our fundamentally-human beliefs apply to ourselves and our families, or to all humans of the world? How often do we act on our deepest beliefs? As I look around, I just don’t see the shock, outrage and protests that were so evident in Oprah’s audience, so many years ago. Not that I’m suggesting the attack on the woman, in that instance, on that day, was warranted. But there was a response — albeit to a fictitious scenario. We have the real-thing, right now, right here in our lives. I’m really feeling my own response and wonder if — hoping others — are too…