One of my less pleasant memories is that of the oral exam I had to take at the end of my master’s program in theology. Mostly what I remember is sitting in a room and staring blankly at three professors who were valiantly attempting to coax me into saying something coherent. At one point I recall one of them saying, “I know you know this–you gave a class presentation on it just a few weeks ago.” Unfortunately, my brain seemed to have temporarily shut down, and I had difficulty coming up with even basic theological terms.
On-the-spot thinking is not really one of my gifts. In initially getting to know people, I often prefer email to actual conversation, because it’s less stressful than having to immediately figure out what to say. (Seraphine and I met as roommates, and the first year we lived together, despite our adjoining bedrooms, we actually had many if not most of our meaningful conversations via email.) I quite regularly have the experience of realizing several hours (or even days) afterward what I should have said in a particular encounter. And while I’m envious of those who, like Lorelei Gilmore, have the ability to come up with a witty response in an instant, this is often a more practical matter–I say yes to something when I should have said no (or vice versa), or I don’t explain what I need to explain about my own circumstances because I’m not thinking clearly. Sometimes my life feels like a continuous process of picking up the pieces after such incidents.
My on-the-spot moral judgment also seems rather weak. I’ve occasionally found myself lying–not as a result of any deliberate intent to deceive, or even for any discernible purpose, but simply because I went mentally blank and started spouting nonsense. If I’m undercharged for something, I have to be quite mentally on-the-ball that day to process that it’s happened and correct things right then. When I see people who need help, and I might actually be in a position to offer that help, I don’t always make that connection until it’s too late.
I sometimes wonder: does that split-second reaction before we’ve had time to think reveal something fundamental about our character? If such is the case, I might be in trouble. I have far more confidence in my ability to make good decisions when I’m given a bit of time to process a situation. If I arrive in the next life and St. Peter says, okay, where do you want to end up, there’s simply no knowing what might come out of my mouth.