Without thinking

I’m fond of figuring out ways to get to know people. I don’t mean finding out where they’re from and what they do for a living. I mean understanding who they are and what they’re made of. I want to discover their character, not their characterisation, as Robert McKee would put it.

I’ve noticed a few ways of doing this. You can see how they act when under extreme stress. Or you can watch them when there’s no stress, when they’re completely and utterly at ease. You can witness the discrepancies in their responses to different people in different situations. You can come to understand them by the alignment—or non-alignment—between what they say and what they do. You can perceive what they do when they have no time and must choose how to spend the little they have, or what they do when they have all the time in the world. You can know a person by their behaviour around the wealthy, powerful and influential, and by their behaviour around the poor, the weak, and the insignificant. 

There are many more I’m sure I’ve forgotten or not even noticed. But there’s one in particular that’s been bouncing around my mind this morning: you can know a person by what they do without thinking.

Conscious thought is a filter for actions and words. It modifies what we do or say according to the present audience. Words and deeds that arise out of slow thought and contemplation are always tainted with the stink of self-consciousness. They are never pure. But if someone acts without thought—instinctively, naturally, and without consideration for how their action will be perceived by others—we can get a window into their soul. 

It is without thinking that the greatest and most terrible acts of humanity are undertaken. The soldier who dives on an imminently exploding grenade to save his squad members doesn’t think. He does what he feels to be right and proper. And the man who is cruel to his dog, who slaps him on the nose for daring to bark at the wrong moment, displays his disdain and cruelty unwittingly. 

So that’s another way in which you can come to know an individual. Ask yourself, what do they do when they don’t think? How do they act when they don’t think about the action?