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.


The Case for Better

My internet pal Justin Wehr recently pushed on a point that I considered so obvious as to be completely incompetent in its defense. This then, is an attempt to build the case for constant improvement. The case for the fact that you should work to be better than you were yesterday every single day of your life.

It’s worth establishing, to start, what we mean by better. Striving to be better requires being fully aware of difference between the improvable things in your life and those that can’t be. You can’t change your genetics, or the factors that we consider to directly flow from that, nor are you able to change the things outside of yourself. A 5’4″ overweight man will never make himself into the most physically attractive mate for a woman who favors skinny men over 6’4″ with a different skin tone. Part of getting better is realizing and accepting that reality.

The thoughts, comments, and actions of others are thoroughly beyond our direct control. (It is, however, worth realizing that by changing the way you act, you can in time shape the way you appear to others.) But if you’re going to get angry any time someone disrespects or disagrees with you, you’re going to live a hollow life as other peoples’ rag doll. Thrown around by the impulses of people who rarely think of you at all, you’ll be subject to endless turmoil and frustration, and that’s no way to live.

Essential to this idea of better is this idea that the thing you can control is the way you live. It’s not only within your control, it’s essentially the only thing you control, so why do you think it’s okay you treat it like garbage? There’s a seldom noticed point that I consider relevant: the smaller a person’s area of control the more seriously they take the maintenance of it. Hoarders are generally people who feel they control nothing in the world, or the whole of it. Someone who recognizes that they own their living space and are the sole one responsible for maintenance of it generally treats it quite well.

And so it is with your abilities and mind. They are essentially the only things you have direct control over. Which is different from saying that they’re the only things you think you control. Some people believe their inability to understand mathematics is wired into the system, (barring some rare developmental disabilities) they’re wrong. Some people believe they can exercise complete control over the subservient people in their life (be they family, romantic partners, employees, or even slaves), they too are wrong.

Once one sees fully and exactly what they control and what they don’t, they generally tend to believe in the value of improving it. One of the biggest obstacles people have in understanding the case for better is that they have mistaken beliefs in either their omnipotence or impotence. ┬áThe delusions that allow people to believe in either direction are one of the most important obstacles to people living the best life they’re capable of. And they’re far more complex and multifaceted to fit within the purview this essay, so I’ll move on.

If we agree that we control our mind and abilities, we’re left with three basic options: get better, get worse, or stagnate. Getting worse is not easy, but people manage it all the time. When you only learn things because people make you, you’ll forget them quickly and be unable to comprehend facets of the world you once did. This is getting worse. When a boyfriend pushed you to eat better and exercise more, and then left your life, you’re probably going to neglect those things you once did well. That’s getting worse. Generally, we get worse because we were never committed to get better in the first place. We did those things that the wise recognize as good because there was someone pushing us out of the rut, once the pushing stops the rut feels welcoming, like home.

Laziness, habits, and willpower conservation are also the reason we typically stagnate. Without outside pressure to know more about the universe than the model of the solar system you got in grade school, you’ll only have learned of the demotion of Pluto from planetary status because the news was so prevalent as to be unavoidable. Without a school-mandated councilor there to push you to work with your anger in a healthy way, you’ll probably never get any better than the modest extant to which they were able to help you fill in the bottom of your rut.

Without a self-motivation brought on by a belief that you can be better, your life will be controlled by others. By the things you can’t help knowing, the work you can’t help doing, by the mental reactions others evince in you because you’ve never taken the time to try to control your own mind. At the most basic level, I think the case for better comes down to this: who do you want to control your life: yourself or interested strangers? Surely there exist strangers genuinely interested in your improvement (most such people also have a deep interest in their own improvement, it’s worth mentioning), but leaving yourself at the mercy of strangers nets out as an unwise proposition. Even a few people with a truly sinister interests can easily overwhelm those trying to be of help when they can.

All of that gets to sounding a bit “me against the world”, but it’s not. One of the best and most common reasons that people have for being better in their life is so that they’re able to help others better. Taking care of yourself seems selfish until you try a few times you help others and make the whole situation worse. When we’re not in control of ourselves, our attempts to help others will frequently go wrong. Being the best version of yourself also allows you to be the best help possible for other people. So if you don’t want to to try to be better for your own sake, do it for our sake. For the sake of your family, friends, neighbors, and world. If there’s a better reason to do anything I’ve not found it.