My grandpa died unexpectedly over spring break in Seattle. I was the only family member to witness his last labored breath, a piercingly soulful event. The night before his stroke we stayed up late drinking liquor. He warned me over Jack Daniels that aspiring novelists have trouble filling their pockets; I stated over Bombay Gin that my pockets were already relatively secure thanks to his success. I also attempted to tell him that I had felt like a man since puberty, but that latter exchange never materialized. I wish it had — Grandpa was a socially liberal Republican who wouldn’t have given a damn.
My I-wouldn’t-have-given-a-damn Grandpa taught me three things: to love fierce women, to treasure a painting’s subjects over its landscape, and to maintain a sense of humor in the face of acidic tribulation.
In his last hours though, I also gleaned a fourth insight from him.
Before spring break I had been agonizing over the decision to undergo hormone replacement therapy, in which transgender men receive testosterone injections to actualize a masculine physique. HRT is a lifelong process that increases body satisfaction through eventual elimination of gender dysphoria.
So I traveled to the Pacific Northwest to spend time with Grandpa and contemplate this decision among the region’s stunning natural beauty. I hoped that the profundity of the Olympic Mountains and the tranquility of the Puget Sound would alleviate my clouded netherworld of indecisiveness. The ruggedness of snow-capped peaks and oscillating contours of salty tides soothed a bit of mental turmoil, but still didn’t produce the sturdy resolve I needed to finalize my difficult decision.
There actually exists a niche community of scholars who dedicate their entire careers to studying the science behind decisions. They float around buzzwords such as “recognition-primed subject,” “macrocognition” and “complexity-environment model” in an attempt to understand why people make the choices they do. After delving into this field of study, I made a mental decision myself that it stretched beyond the flaky realms of academia.
In 1989 a psychologist called Gary Klein pioneered the field of Naturalistic Decision Making that rejects the idealistic assumption that people make choices in prolonged and hyper-analytical fashion. Instead, Klein sought to discover how people made tough decisions under limited time, uncertainty and high stakes. Klein developed scores of mental schema that highlighted the pivotal contribution of prior experience in rapidly categorizing situations. NDM has since generated millions of dollars from theoretical and practical adoption by the profiteering defense community, which has ingrained it into the Army Field Manual on Command and Control (FM 101-5).
Additionally, in 2008, a team of Harvard researchers studied more deliberative decision making that counteracts the time restraints imposed on Klein’s model. They specifically outlined “System 1” and “System 2” forces. System 1 flexes implicit emotional muscles of intuition whereas System 2 refers to slower and effortful rational thinking. The Harvard team studied how humans can delicately move between intuition and reason to develop more nuanced and responsive decision-making skills.
But this academic literature still didn’t give me the resolve to undergo HRT, even after I probed the depths of my intuition and reason, and conducted Klein-esque thought experiments mirroring a time pressure environment.
I only found my resolve after my Grandpa let out his last labored breath. I was simultaneously shocked and enchanted by the power of his death. In his last hours, he taught me about the fleeting nature of life and injected urgency into a situation that was overly deliberative. I think Klein and the Harvard researchers and other like-minded experts ignored the influence of profound external events — of heartbreaking emotional stimuli — on a decision maker’s conscience. Part of their literature succumbed to a troubling American tradition of egotistical intellectualism. You’d be absolutely foolish to believe that decision-making capacity solely comes from the self. It does not — it is influenced by ubiquitous powers beyond our control.
A spiral of new neurons had coalesced in my brain to turn on a decision-switch, and I won’t complain. Instead, I’ll consider its magic to be my grandpa’s fourth lesson. I might even tattoo the date of his death in Roman numerals on my ankle as an aesthetic ode to his last teaching.
So, Grandpa, your legacy will be etched in two forms of ink. It will live on in the way members of your family confront profound decisions.
Rest in peace.
Isaac Amend is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .