There’s more to all of us than quick, easy judgments would suggest
Padraig O’Morain: A person who seems daft on one issue could be wise on everything else
There’s more to people than quick and easy judgments would suggest. That applies to those see angels, conservative Catholics, writers of haiku, ex-partners – and yourself.
Wandering around a cemetery the other week, I spotted the headstone of a man who had once startled me by asserting his belief in angels. Such a belief is, or used to be, pretty common in Ireland, but he believed he could sense the presence of angels – and that they guided him in making important life choices.
I did not then and do not now believe in angels or otherworldly creatures, so to me his pronouncements were daft. What really startled me, though, was that he was a good businessman. If you needed advice on a commercial decision, you could rely on him to set you on the right path.
How was it, I wondered, that a person who believed in things I utterly rejected was also someone I would willingly turn to for advice about money? I never resolved the question, but I remembered it recently when I heard someone mention Brendan Shortall, whom many readers today will not have heard of.
When I worked in a public relations agency back in the day, Brendan joined us as an account executive. We were a pretty liberal bunch, and we knew Brendan was on the more conservative side of things.
How is it possible for a person to be so wrong (in my eyes, that is) about something and at the same time be highly intelligent about most other things
The outstanding thing about Brendan, though, was that we looked on him as the most intelligent person we had ever met. Brendan seemed to know everything, and there was nothing he couldn’t figure out.
I left the PR agency after a few years. When I next heard of Brendan, he was press spokesman for the anti-abortion movement. As such, on the legal and constitutional issues he was directly opposed to everything I believed in. But he was still the most intelligent person I ever knew.
It’s a mystery
So the mystery remains: how is it possible for a person to be so wrong (in my eyes, that is) about something and at the same time be highly intelligent about most other things? The only answer I can come up with is that none of us can be judged on just one aspect of our personality and actions. But all too often, we seize on one thing about a person and judge the entire person accordingly.
Here is a ridiculous example: When Herman Van Rompuy became first president of the European Council, some in the British media lost their composure when it emerged he liked to write haiku (three-line poems in a Japanese tradition). They seized on this one thing; his other attributes did not exist for them. The Sun even broke into verse: “Rompuy pumpy is EU’s numpty”. A ridiculous example, as I said, but see how easily people seize on one attribute?
On a more serious level, think of people who split up after a long relationship. For a while at least – sometimes for good – the other ex is judged only by their unfavourable traits and everything good about them is left off the scale.
We do the same to ourselves, as Martin Seligman, who developed the Positive Psychology movement, points out. If, say, you fail an exam you didn’t work hard enough for, you may conclude “I’m lazy” and if you believe in it you may carry this global judgment, as Seligman calls it, through life.
In fact, the global judgment is wrong because all that’s happened is that you didn’t work hard enough for that exam. You’ve probably put lots of energy into other areas of your life, and indeed you may not even have regarded what you were doing as work because you liked it.
Global judgments are misleading and sometimes harmful
So instead of “I failed the exam because I’m lazy,” which is a global, unalterable judgment, Seligman suggests you say “I failed the exam because I didn’t work hard enough for it”. That’s something you can fix, next time around.
The key conclusion I take from all this is that global judgments are misleading and sometimes harmful. There’s more to all of us than quick and easy judgments would suggest. That applies to people who see angels, conservative Catholics, writers of haiku, ex-partners and yourself.
Pádraig O’Morain (firstname.lastname@example.org) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email. Twitter: @PadraigOMorain