The Action Gap and WWJD

There are things that we say that we want to do and things that we do. There are things we say we believe, and then there are the beliefs that the actions we actually do can clearly be read as meaning. I was talking with a friend recently when I–as far as either of us could tell–coined a term that I think is useful: the action gap. (A subsequent Google search revealed that the value-action gap is well known enough to have a good-sized Wikipedia page.)

I think almost everyone has at least some familiarity with the basic beliefs that are needed to make the world a better one than most of us can even imagine. Not only are we at least familiar with them, but many of use even talk of admiring people who demonstrate these beliefs clearly. You can be pretty certain that if everyone who said they admired Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, or Mr. Ghandi was striving at all times to act in a accordance with what they admire about them, the world would look quite different.

To my mind, the most vital part of this values-action gap is the difference between those things we know intellectually and those things we’ve integrated fully into our view of the world. I know–in a diffuse way–that the actions of Jesus were admirable, but when it comes to acting, Jesus is nowhere to be found.

Trying inexpertly to close this gaps is why people wear WWJD bracelets. At least then you can be sure Jesus is somewhere around.

Where a WWJD bracelet is admirable, in my estimation, is where it drives you to think again. By calling you ever again to the question of how a moral exemplar would have handled the situation in which you find yourself, you’re forced to think through your response and be more attentive to the reality before you. What you see on auto-pilot and what a fully awake and enlightened person would do can be too very different things, and a WWJD bracelet can help close the gap. (That’s not to say it will.)

External reminders to look more carefully, and consider the options fully can only get you so far. So long as they stay external they’ll be mere intrusions upon your auto-pilot which is what drives almost all of your actions. Maybe one time in fifty they’ll remind you to turn the other cheek, or understand the minor value of money, but mostly you’ll still be operating with your basic greedy monkey mind.

It’s not easy to integrate new ideas and procedures into your mind’s functioning, but it is both possible and worthwhile. It must inevitably begin as an external thing. Our minds are creatures of habit, which happily funnel us into the well-worn grooves of habitual patterns to simplify their task. We can react faster if don’t have to take the time to wonder if the proper response to seeing a lion is to run.

To make the external internal, then, will take a long time. Years even. If you don a WWJD bracelet today and will beat yourself up over every un-Christ-like action starting tomorrow, I’d encourage you to not even start. This struggle to better emulate our moral ideal is a life-long task, not something we can change in a weekend.

We have few tools we can bring to bear on this quest, but the truly important ones can be counted on one hand. All you need is your goal, your reality, and a method to change. Jesus may be your goal, the fact that you just exchanged blows with your brother because he said your hair looked stupid may be your present reality. Your method of change consists of simply asking yourself why you just got in fight with your brother, what a better response would have been, and how you can close that gap. If you stay attentive to these gaps and how you can close them, you will eventually do it. It may take decades, but I think if you’re honest, dedicated, and attentive, anyone has the potential to get there.


OPW: “Far Out on the Uncharted Arm”

And now, the immortal words that began two of the five books in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy quintilogy. In case you were wondering they’re The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.

And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, one girl sitting on her own in a small cafe in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.

Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terribly stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost for ever.