One of the joys of old age is that you can get away with bad behaviour. Or so they say. You can speak your mind. You don’t have to bother with the niceties.

One of my fears about getting older is that I might say the first thing that comes into my head, and what if it’s bad?

I try hard to be good, kind and moral, but sometimes my first thoughts are nasty and unkind. Which is the “real me”?

Writer and blogger James Prescott recently tweeted a CS Lewis quote: “Surely what a person does when they are taken off guard is the best evidence for what sort of person they are.”

I replied, “Not sure about that quote – we can’t help unworthy off-guard thoughts, but do we indulge or challenge them?” Back came James, “I think there’s truth in that. However, I think we need to listen to off-guard thoughts & reflect on where they come from.”

He’s right, and in the full quote, C S Lewis himself recognises the points we made. You are most likely to see the rats in the cellar if you go in suddenly, as they don’t have time to hide, he says. “In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man; it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am.”

Lewis writes as if ill-temper is a failing some of us have and others don’t. But neuroscience suggests that our response to sudden provocation is automatic, an instant reaction from our primitive brain.

Steve Peters talks about the Chimp and the Human, where The Chimp “is an independent emotional thinking machine and works with feelings and impressions, and acts without your permission!” The Human works with logical thinking, facts and truth, and has responsibility for managing the Chimp’s sometimes bad behaviour. (Daniel Kahnemann calls these Systems 1 and 2.)

Yet while we can’t control the instant thoughts our brains generate, we can teach ourselves to monitor, challenge and restrain them. We don’t have to tweet them. Or as Martin Luther put it, “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair”.

It is definitely important to ask where the birds come from. Are they being bred and released towards us deliberately? Are we consciously visiting their nesting grounds? Am I pushing this metaphor too far?

But it’s still the case that, if we really want to know a person’s character, we need to look at their on-guard – or Human, or System 2 – self.

As Ruth Whippman says in an article on Being authentic, it isn’t clear that we each have a core authentic self which is the better part of our nature. It is our inauthentic self which ‘stops us from being rude and selfish.”

“To live a civilised and connected life we should really be constantly second-guessing and checking our “authentic selves”, addressing our biases, biting our tongues and filtering what we say for hurtfulness or idiocy, saddling up occasionally and doing the difficult but kind thing.”

But what happens when those controls slip? As we get older, our ability to monitor and manage our wayward thoughts and bad behaviour gets weaker. For some with dementia, it can go completely.

It doesn’t mean it’s our “true self” coming out. For that, we should look at how someone lived their life and the values they tried to uphold.


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