which comes first?

No. I’m not thinking about chickens and eggs. It’s more nearly understanding and behavior. Or insight and change. Perhaps wisdom and conduct.

There is this ancient and ongoing debate about how to improve human life. How do bad habits get replaced by good ones? One theory is that education, understanding, and insight will combine to produce change in human beings. The other is that embracing new patterns of behavior provide insight.

I’m not smart enough to settle the debate. But it seems likely that the very idea of choosing between the two alternatives is a fundamental mistake. The idea that all change happens by only one technique sounds wrong-headed to me.

For example, little children have to be made to bathe and brush their teeth. Over time, however, they learn the value of the behaviors. Boys especially seem to resent both these intrusions into their time – until they discover girls! Required activity eventually is seen to be justified by more mature reflection. Mothers teach children behaviors they appreciate fully only as adults.

On the other hand, there are occasional flashes of insight that come to us and change us forever. A man who loves a woman picks up on her tastes and preferences and desires; he learns to do things differently in order to please her or to make her life less stressful.

On balance, my own hunch is that change more often leads to insight than the other way around. So there are social boundaries and rules. We pass and enforce laws. The Bible marks forbidden paths and counsels positive behaviors. The idea is that we can’t wait for everybody to grow up, figure out his or her own ethical rules, and gradually conform to them. That would be like putting children in a lab and telling them to mix chemicals until they discover something interesting. Countless more would get blown up or poisoned than would create medicines!

But this seems to be the way we have left people to develop their moral and spiritual lives for the past half century. Just do it. Find your own way. Do what seems best to you. Create your own truth. Don’t let anybody tell you what to do.

In the meantime, people have ruined their own and others’ lives by ignoring basics such as truth-telling, respect for life, keeping promises, and living within our means. Maybe they didn’t live long enough to get the insights they needed.

Doing the right things you already know will lead you to healthy insights. Groping about in your uncertainties will only serve to put you at greater risk.

Reprinted from Rubel Shelly’s
FAX of Life.