A population conditioned toward inaction


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A recent video from a security camera in China caught a toddler as she struggled to escape traffic after being run over by two different cars on a busy city street. The disturbing content of the video, surprisingly, isn't so much the tragedy of the event as it is the visible lack of action on the behalf of bystanders. The camera displays a large crowd of people as they witness the accident, stop to watch, and subsequently continue to go about their daily business, walking off in every direction.

It's easy for us to view this nearly subhuman reaction as the outcome of an event in a foreign place of "different" minds with "different" values, but the truth is much simpler and not so distant. This tragic event sets the great stage for a far less dramatic but nonetheless applicable lesson concerning the choices and decision-making tendencies of human beings.

We are a part of a society, of a world, that often presents itself in the form of choices that must be made at a moment's notice. While for the most part these choices are fleeting and insignificant, the constant potential for encountering moral conundrum at any point in time is a weighty reality. In the walk of life, we must be vigilant — we must condition ourselves to prevent habit or ease of doing to drive our day-to-day decisions.

From the moment of consciousness and self-awareness, we've been endowed with that innate ability that so distinguishes us from the rest of Earth's biological population — the gift of choice, of will, of agency. From the tiniest flick of the wrist to the decision to attend the University of Iowa to the choice of what major to call your own, we are a people made up as a population and as individuals by the decisions we make on a daily basis.

Yes, yes it's all elementary, my dear Watsons, and we've all heard it before. But it's not necessarily the decisions themselves that should scare us — or empower us — it's the natural tendency for those decisions to become habit. After all, every bystander on the street that day didn't simply "make the wrong decision." We know it doesn't work like that. That particular street didn't happen to be, on that very day, at that very moment, filled with crooks, thieves, and gangsters. (Who knows, maybe one of them would have helped.)

It's easiest to think of decision-making as a code, or a series of numbers, perhaps ones that can be graphed easily on an X-Y plot. For each decision we make, let's say our choice is plotted on that graph (math fanatics, this is all theoretical and for the sake of metaphor.). As we continue through life, we make more and more decisions, most insignificant, others not so much. At first, when we're young, these points on our graph can be easily distinguished and vary visibly.

But as we grow and evolve as persons, our agency begins to take shape. Our symbolic scatter-plot begins to become an ink-blot or an oil spill on white canvas — our decisions begin to take form. If we were to plot a line of best fit, we would discover tendency, trend — we would find habit. Our individual decisions from one to the next would become, unlike when we were young, indistinguishable from one another. And as we grow and live our lives, these decisions vary less. We continue to do what's comfortable; we do what is easy and what is obvious; we do what we have done. And before we know it, the decisions we once made begin to make us.

We are a people who, perhaps more often than not, allow our greatest gift to spoil and to rot, a tendency in and of itself. Can the bystanders of the recent event in a crowded Chinese street be blamed for what they did or didn't do? Maybe, maybe not. But our aim should be to not become them. And sure, we might never find ourselves confronted with a situation remotely akin to what those people were exposed to on that day. Hopefully, we're not. But we can only strive. To resist the tendency to become machine, to become an equation that can produce only certain solutions, to be ruled by a trend line. As French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once noted, "Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does."

So next time you walk into a Starbucks, don't buy the usual Pumpkin Spice Latte. (Besides, it's a diabetes-inducing stomach grenade.) The next time a friend asks you to go out on a Friday, when you're usually studying, say yes. If someone asks you to go out on a Wednesday, when you're usually going out anyway, say no, and study. Ask the girl in your lecture on a date, even if she's out of your league. Talk to the less fortunate — don't ignore them. Put Skittles in your pancakes. Don't find yourself watching something happen, knowing you could have made a difference. Rule your life, because if you don't it, it might end up ruling you.

Or don't. Truth is, it's always been up to you.

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