On the playground some weeks ago, a kindergarten girl called out to ask me to watch how fast she could run. I complied with her request and away she went. Of course, I told her she was quite fast. I went to far as to declare myself impressed with her land-speed capabilities.
This exchange reminded me of many moments that I witness on the playground each day in which kids declare themselves the fastest, the strongest, the best looking. When this kind of posturing comes from the very young, it’s the stuff of comedy. As adults, we play along since these kinds of illusions are considered harmless parts of growing up. But we do seem to cling to the need to declare ourselves powerful in some way and this need is one that cuts quite deep. How many times have any of us seen grown men and women boasting about how much stronger, smarter, or more powerful they are than a given adversary? We may declare our imagined advantages in more clever ways. But at the core, we know that the bigger the boast, the deeper the fear.
The truth is that, in an animal sense, We are a vulnerable species. Other creatures on this planet are far faster and far stronger than even the fastest and strongest human. I can imagine a roundtable of creatures – bears, lions, cheetahs, sharks, and so on chuckling when they hear humans speak of themselves in high-toned ways. And, when our guard is down, do we really do get the fact that we’re not all that powerful after all? The protective clothing we wear, the fences we build, our elaborate security systems, our eye glasses, our weapon systems – the bulk of our inventions are further evidence of how we compensate for our frailties.
However, what about a unique power we may be taking for granted? The power to make choices? Now here we may be on to something. Choice-making is the one potent advantage that other species seemed to have bypassed on the evolutionary road. Plenty of evidence exists to suggest making choices is the one superpower that humans have mastered. And, when it comes to making choices, what better tool could there be than the human mind? Our brains never cease to imagine infinite futures, generate cause and effect relationships, remember and organize events – and turn these events into lessons. The mind stands ready to deliver anything an individual might need to make an informed choice. Possession of a superpower does not imply its wise use, but having this capacity does point to some stunning options we may be ignoring when we think about raising children, learning, problem solving, and progress.
I sometimes reflect on my past, on mistakes, and on other choices I might have made. How would I have become a better servant if I had practiced using this wonderful gift of choice with love, tenderness, and respect? What if my only course of study had been in the art of making skillful choices? What if I had been sent to a school deep in the mountains where I received rigorous training in choice making, not to be released upon the world until I could show that I had mastered this skill? How different would my life have been?
With six billion people on the planet, I doubt that such mountain schools could exist for everyone. Still, if choice is our greatest asset, then wouldn’t it serve us better if we practiced making choices in ways that were practical? Am I on to something exciting here? Hard to say. But the existence of an imagination in a mind well trained in choice making could be a potent combination. Likewise, the capacity to distinguish fact from reactive opinion could help us turn hard experience into wisdom rather than bitterness or prejudice.
Would I be speaking out of turn to suggest that our own species’ future could be enhanced if we would get good at doing what we are best suited to do? The dilemmas we now face imply that we no longer have a choice about respecting (and practicing) our one superpower.