Personal Reflections


I do not really know how it has come to this. I have some ideas of my own, but I am fully aware of the fact that we human beings have only limited access to our own cognitions, motives, and, often, even affects. I am also fully aware of the hazards in trying to derive correct causal inferences from observed behavior. And that is pretty much all I have to go on. I have, to some extent, been a lifelong observer of my own behavior, pondering it, questioning it, sometimes dismayed at what I found myself doing. I was always pretty good at conjuring up explanations for my behavior that seemed plausible to me, even though those explanations were not always pleasant to contemplate. I do need to say here that this account of my life and career is pretty much confined to the professional side of it all. Anyway, this is my story, and I’m sticking to it, at least until I come up with a better one.

As I have from time to time looked back on my life, I have regularly been bemused, surprised, or both, at the turns my life has taken and where I have ended up. I have, in most respects, had a wonderful life and career. There is a joke to the effect that an older person comments that “If I had known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.” My version of that is something like, “If I had known I was going to have a career such as mine, I’d have prepared myself better for it.” I was always a potentially good student but not always a diligent one. I did not grow up in an environment that put much emphasis on “excellence,” on doing one’s best; it was sufficient just to do well. I did not put much effort into high school and often cut corners or avoided difficult courses of action. I remember a twinge of competitive regret on learning one time that I was nowhere near the top if my class in grades. In fact, I think I finished about sixth or seventh in a group of 76 seniors who graduated the year I did. I make a point of these matters because I want to make it clear that I was not, as were some other psychologists who have written memoirs such as this, clearly destined for brilliance from early in life. And, the consistency of human behavior being what it is, I did not reach that brilliance either.

In order to understand my career, how it developed, and where I have ended up, it is necessary, I think, to take account of several traits or dispositions that I have manifested over the years. Most of those dispositions were probably inborn, but most of them also required the right set of circumstances in order to develop has they have and to be expressed in my career as they have. The dispositions I have in mind are curiosity, innovativeness, skepticism, and pragmatism. Oh, yes, and optimism and prosociality.

Westerners are supposed to be more open to new experience than are Midwesterners, but I have always craved new experience, new ideas, new ways of doing things. When I was a child, I wanted to be an explorer, and I often imagined myself to be one when I was out in the countryside, as I often was. I tried one hobby after another, abandoning them in turn when I found out that each of them required sustained effort and narrowing, rather than broadening of one’s interests and activities. All during my high school years, I heard radio ads for a “fancy” hotel dining room in Kansas City, and I longed to go there and try it out. When I came home from Marine Corps duty in l947, when I was not yet 19 years old, one of the first things I did was go to Kansas City and have dinner, all by myself, at that dining room. And I ordered sirloin steak, smothered in mushrooms, which, at that time, was the most sophisticated and exotic meal I could imagine.

All my life I have been afflicted with an unremitting optimisms that carried me through all sorts of adversities. Whatever happened, it always seemed evident to me that better things and better times were in the offing. I never really gave up on anything because I never regarded anything as hopeless. (Although I abandoned many things simply because I tired of them.) In times of pain, I have always thought that the pain had to decrease, that the next hour or the next day would be better. In times of danger, which I have generally been spared, as, indeed, I have been spared much pain, I have commonly thought to myself that the actual odds of anything truly bad happening were in my favor: most people do not fall, most people do not die, and so on. My optimism kept me from ever simply giving up, unlike some less fortunate colleagues and friends over the years who succumbed to despair and went off to do something else that seemed less demanding.

My optimism was, I believe, inborn and was characteristic of both my parents, especially my father, and of most of my relatives on either side of the family. es on both sides of the family were all “simple folk,” not educated beyond high school, if even that, and all of at best modest means; mostly not even that. But all, or nearly all of them, were optimists and happy. There is a great advantage in life to the person who starts off with the assumption that things are going to work out, who is naively confident that it is worth while to keep going on.

I might add, even though digressing some, that my parents taught me, mostly by example, I think, to be polite, to be respectful of my elders and my betters, and to watch my language. All those habits have stood me in good stead over the years. I have never had to deal with the idea that being polite and respectful is demeaning or in any other way diminishing. In the Marine Corps it never galled me, as it did some of my peers, to have to salute or say “Sir” to a higher ranking man. (I never even met a female Marine). That made my life easier and kept me more tranquil. Certainly in the Marine Corps I learned to swear some and occasionally have indulged in it. But in the Marine Corps I met so many men with a true talent for the use of bad language that I became inhibited along those lines and have managed most of my life in most of my affairs simply to get along without swearing. That also made my life easier because it eased things a bit in my relationships with female students and also for quite a few years at Northwestern when I dealt regularly with students from the theological seminary.

Nihil,cyn, skept, show me[1],

I am a skeptic, maybe naturally so, having been born in Missouri, “the show me” state. It is proper, maybe inevitable, that a methodologist should be a skeptic. Or maybe it is inevitable that a skeptic should be something of a methodologist. Certainly I was a skeptic long before I came to think of myself as a methodologist.

A skeptic is a doubter, and chronic doubting may lead to cynicism and even nihilism. I admit to being a cynic about many things, although, in a way that would appear paradoxical to many people, I am also a sentimentalist. A sentimental cynic? How is that? Well, I often find myself feeling sentimental about something, feeling nostalgic about some time past that cannot be recovered, or feeling moved by the plight of some unfortunate person who has ended up wronged by life, or feeling sweetly pleased at some trivial triumph by someone I like. But still cynical. Knowing that I am being sentimental but that the moment will pass. Knowing that the poor unfortunate person to some extent brought the misfortune on himself. Thinking that it is foolish to get worked up over something as evanescent as the fact that someone had a brief moment of fame.

I have, as much as anything, devoted my life to learning. I have never given up, and I would regard a day in which I learned nothing new as being a considerable, if not total waste. I have, admittedly, been not greatly discriminating in my learning, and I am often as satisfied to learn one thing as another. Just recently, during a trip to Alaska, I was pleased to learn something about permafrost, to learn that Alaskan “Eskimos” never built igloos, and to learn that the word moose is an eastern Indian word meaning “xxxx.” I should, perhaps, have been learning something about the functions of the cingulate gyrus or the derivation of an error term for the Normed Fit Index. Still, what I did learn was satisfying to me. I intend to continue to learn, and learn, and learn. I am endlessly curious.

An idea I rather like comes from a Canadian TV show about an Ojibwa shaman who said, “Death is not the end of anything. It merely means we are complete.” A fine sentiment that I now am convinced means I will never make it.

[1] Scattered through the original Odyssey file are “outline” notes Lee apparently wrote as he drafted his auto-biographical reflections. These are reproduced and located here as he wrote them.