My friends Patrick and Linda have a new baby named Emma. As is the case with many infants, Emma is quite vocal with her high-pitched cries for attention. Patrick, Linda, and I fell into a conversation about Emma’s various types of cries and how the new parents are learning to decode them. Linda stated that our first few years are probably the most uninhibited times of our lives. She was thankful for this fact because it made her mothering job slightly easier. Linda is becoming better at translating Emma’s cries and usually knows if the baby is hungry, needs a diaper change, or is experiencing discomfort. Sometimes, Emma simply wants parental attention.
When we consider the basics of child or adult behavior, we learn that our actions derive from desire, our emotional state, knowledge about whether or not the desire can be fulfilled, and the degree of inhibition that is innate to our personality. Patrick said he thinks the types of public behavior rank along a spectrum. Public behavior, according to his reckoning, varies from the baseline of infantile at one end up to the extreme levels of control exhibited by Zen masters. The rest of us, from criminals to everyday law-abiding citizens, fall somewhere within these two extremes.
Behaviorists claim that all of us harbor disturbing, outrageous, shocking thoughts. The elderly lady waiting in line to pay for her groceries might be fantasizing about gunning down the customers in front of her. The devoutly religious pastor might be daydreaming about living the life of a playboy. The teen with a brand-new iPhone may have the urge to toss his device from the rooftop of a tall building onto the street below. Thankfully, the vast majority of these desires and fantasies remain hidden away in the dark recesses of our minds and have no bearing on our public behavior.
Although we might imagine scenarios that would give a Steven King horror novel a run for the money, we are still good people. These horrifying, terrifying thoughts are not reflections upon our moral character. The scenarios are just products of our brains’ inner workings–our monkey-minds. Most of us simply dismiss the scary thoughts and move on to think about other stuff. The exceptions are people who suffer from clinically diagnosed conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder.
I’m a big fan of Judith Martin aka Miss Manners. I like her approach to public behavior and etiquette. She is an advocate of self-awareness and behavioral self-improvement. If we read between the lines of her books we learn that our bad or good manners and other actions are reflections of our personal values. If we evaluate our actions in relation to our core aspirations and principles we realize how much we are or are not embodying our personal philosophies. We learn how our ideals, and ethics affect how we interact with other people and the rest of the world. Miss Manners believes that our behavior is not static, but can be elevated. We don’t have to act like the Queen of England in order to respect others and improve our public behavior. Etiquette is basically respect for one’s own and other people’s dignity. In the bigger picture, how one sets the table for dinner is irrelevant. However, she can teach us how to configure a place-setting because that is good, too.
Some of us wear our emotions on our sleeves. We experience our fair share of moodiness and happiness. We realize our personal power when we more fully understand that we have dominion over our passions and behavior. We are capable of changing our habits by making decisions and following through those actions with new behavior.
Nobody is promising us that this isn’t difficult, but when we change our attitude, changing our behavior is easier. When we change our public behavior, likewise do the end results. When we fully realize the connection between thoughts and behavior, it’s just a matter of consciously harnessing this knowledge to manage and optimize our lives.
We might compare this ability to harness our thoughts with the act of cultivating courage. In fact courage or the lack thereof are major aspects of human behavior. The process of being courageous entails feeling the fear but going ahead and performing the act anyway–while doing it for the greater benefit of everyone involved. To be able to adapt to the fearful situation is the definition of intelligent public behavior.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes actor, author, and speaker, Fran Lebowitz. “There is no such thing as inner peace. There is only nervousness or death. Any attempt to prove otherwise constitutes unacceptable behavior.”