Vail Daily column: With the benefit of hindsight
Viewed clinically, life is nothing more than a series of decisions that begins once our conscious mind forms and ends corporeally upon our death. Every day is segmented into its own set of choices. We decide what to eat in the morning, what to wear, what to say, which music to which we will listen, the work we will accomplish or not, who we will marry, which job we will accept. Each decision, no matter its size or context, has its particular consequences. Most after-effects are so minor as to escape notice; some are so monumental as to be life-altering. Hopefully, the causes of one’s choices overwhelmingly lead to positive effects. When they do not, our decisions are subject to rebuke from ourselves and/or others. When we sit in judgment, we hold the power of hindsight; that distorting lens that makes every choice seem more poor than in reality.
Hindsight is the principle upon which our legal system is premised. The defendant engaged in a certain action or series of actions which, after the fact, the plaintiff or prosecutor believes to not be in accord with acceptable behavior. Theoretically, the standard for judging the defendant’s actions is codified in statute or is floating within the murky waters of precedent. But, due to the vagaries inherent in such a system, the ultimate standard is contained within the minds and hearts of the judge or jury hearing the case. Most often, this rubric can be reduced to the subjective concept of reasonableness. The trier of fact, imbued with the power to decide the fate of another, exercises such power by comparing the alleged behavior to what they would have done in the same circumstance.
Wisdom is Relative
This is problematic because our wisdom is relative to the time at which it is evaluated. When you awake to the unmistakable scent of frying breakfast meats, it is not insane to believe that scarfing chorizo burritos is a good idea. But, when judged from an elevation of 12,000 feet when you have spent three hours on your mountain bike and are now feeling the hot sauce burn your throat and ruin your life, it is easy to censure yourself for being so stupid. Likewise, when a judge or jury evaluates the circumstances of a case, they are privy to a perspective that the accused did not have in the course of her decision-making. This not only includes the unanticipated aftermath, but the viewpoints of not just the accused but of all of the relevant actors in the scenario.
To be able to put one’s self in another’s stead at a specific past moment in time is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. Yet that is what the legal system asks the judge or jury to do. The judgment that is dispositive for the accused is hopelessly askew because of the unavoidable bias of self-regard. We are predisposed to believe that we would have acted more rationally than is likely to be true. It is easy to say “Oh, I never would have done that,” when it is not your actions facing the firing squad.
Problem with Psychological Self-Immolation
The same logic applies to self-evaluation. When your relationship is left a flaming wreck, it is too convenient to torture oneself for falling in love with someone who turned out to be a cad. But, in the moments that comprised the marriage, you did not possess the knowledge that would lead to that ultimate conclusion. Psychological self-immolation is even easier when your friends and family pile on with comments about how you never listened to them and that they knew this would happen all along. But those people were not you, they did not see what you saw, did not live through your experiences. You must continue to trust yourself, even after you recognize that your judgment was not as good as it could have been.
No Small Measure
Hindsight is the tool by which we judge others and ourselves too harshly. Assuming that the motives underlying decisions are pure, the severe judgments need to cease. Of course, that is a large assumption to make. As individuals, we generally understand our motivations. If we made a decision that was inspired by lust or greed or other venal sin, then the self-criticism may be warranted. It is harder to determine where others may fall on the good-faith spectrum. But, a certain amount of deference is warranted. Others may not be as altruistic as they would want to be perceived, but they are also not likely to be as selfish or evil as our hindsight would suggest.
We are all on this journey together; let’s lighten it up in no small measure.
T.J. Voboril is a partner at Reynolds, Kalamaya & Voboril LLC, a local law firm, and the owner and mediator at Voice Of Reason Dispute Resolution. For more information, contact Voboril at 970-306-6456, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.rkvlaw.com.