“You can’t handle the truth.” I love that line. It’s from one of the all-time great courtroom scenes when Tom Cruise interrogates Jack Nicholson in the movie A Few Good Men. I rewatch that film whenever it’s on just to see Jack Nicholson say, “You can’t handle the truth.”

There’s another scene from a far lesser known movie called Black or White in which Kevin Costner, the widowed grandfather of a mixed-race granddaughter (Eloise) is asked if he is racist by the attorney of the other grandparent who is Black and suing for custody of the granddaughter. Costner’s daughter (the girl’s mother) died years ago, and Kevin Costner’s wife dies in the opening of the movie, leaving him to raise Eloise on his own. When asked by the Black attorney if he is a racist, Costner’s reply perfectly describes the dangers of rushing to judgment as occurs far too often, especially as it relates to identity politics. It’s not what you think first…it’s what you think or do next that matters. Here’s a summary of the movie’s dialogue…

Attorney: “Do you dislike Black people?”

Attorney: “Do you have a problem with racial prejudice?”

Costner: “We have different skin colors. Is that the first thing I notice when I see a Black man? The color of his skin? Yes…because I can go ahead and submit that it’s the first thing you see when you see a white guy. Now I don’t know why that is any more than I know why when I see a good-looking woman, the first thing I notice are her breasts…But if I move onto my next thought quick enough, I’m not a pervert…I’m just mildly flawed. It’s the same thing with race. It’s not my first thought that counts. It’s my second, third and fourth thought…and each and every case I’m in, it comes down to the same thing—the action and interaction I’m having with the person that I’m interacting with.”

In other words…we all notice things—but that doesn’t mean we act on them. It’s what we do with that thought that matters. And this isn’t just about race or gender or any other political divides. Where do your human emotions and impulses go after noticing something? 

I realized how powerful this concept of the second, third and fourth thought is when I woke in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. I got up too quickly, and my head swirled for a moment, causing me to pause and let the room settle before I continued walking. In that moment of swirling, my overactive, neurotic mind created a list of “what ifs” to explain why I was dizzy. I’ve simply heard too many stories about strokes and aneurysms that come out of nowhere. That was my first thought. Immediately after, I went to my second, third and fourth thoughts—my blood pressure runs low…I got up quickly…this happens often…I’m fine. Silly girl, don’t get up so fast.

In Buddhism there is a concept called the “monkey mind,” which has been described by B.J. Gallagher, one of the coauthors of Being Buddha at Work: 108 Ancient Truths on Change, Stress, Money, and Success, as “being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly.” We all have monkey minds with dozens of monkeys all clamoring for attention. Fear is an especially loud monkey, sounding the alarm incessantly, pointing out all the things we should be wary of and everything that could go wrong.

This constant chatter gets in our way, distracting us from the task at hand as well as from our bigger goals. Worrying about the mundane or creating shallow drama diabolically helps us avoid the real work that we need to do and perhaps are avoiding. Making assumptions about someone’s mildly annoying or odd behavior prevents you from having a deep and meaningful relationship with that person. 

We all have first thoughts about all sorts of things—impulsive and impetuous thoughts. That item in the store is beautiful…the person is very attractive…I wonder how it would feel if…. These thoughts don’t mean that we suddenly buy something we don’t need or hit on someone because he/she is attractive. We must be aware of the noise of the monkey mind and give ourselves the maturity of those second, third and fourth thoughts.

As I watch the jumps to judgment and the divisive and intolerant viewpoints swirling through the media, social media and dinner tables across the globe, it seems we all can use a dose of maturity before jumping conclusions or into action.

Rather than spend our time looking for “proof” that our points of view are right, we need to pause after that first thought and wait for those second, third and fourth ones.

  • Is what I am thinking rational?
  • Does what I am thinking matter or make sense? Or is it just distracting noise?
  • Is my observation worth acting on? Or is it just an observation?
  • Then what…what will I do—or not do—in response to my thought?

Be it health fears…impetuous desires and attractions…or the stereotyping of large swaths of the population, our reactivity is dangerous. Part of emotional maturity is controlling raw emotions and learning to take the time to process those next steps. It’s time to bring the adults back in the room.

Related Articles