Flipping the calendar from December to January seems to put most Americans in an unusually reflective mood. If we are ever going to “go deep” into our own psyches or souls this is the time. For the next few months, this blog will occasionally look at the concept of choice. It is true that “Life is a sum of all your choices.” Every response to what the world lays at our feet involves a choice. How can we be sure that we are making wise and conscious choices?
Decades ago, I made a choice that has always haunted me. I was an introverted English student hiding in the back of the classroom at Hope College. And I was totally petrified of Dr. Joan Mueller. She was the best literature teacher I had ever had (and ever will have). I was enthralled with her knowledge, teaching style, and experience.
I worked very hard in that class, especially on a paper about Emily Dickinson. For the first time in my short career as a literature student, I dug deep into the life and artistry of a poet. I thought it was a good paper, but when it came back with a huge red A+ and several thoughtful and positive comments, I was shocked. And when I saw the note on the top of the first page, I was nearly paralyzed: “See me in my office soon!”
For several days I agonized over that comment. What did I do wrong? What did she want? I finally realized that I probably didn’t do anything wrong because she was so positive about the paper. But what could she want to say to me? Why had she singled me out?
In the end, I chose not to find out. I did not make an appointment. I did not visit her office. In fact, I avoided eye contact with her for the rest of the semester. I had convinced myself that she wanted to advise me to go to graduate school and that would upset my whole life plan – which was based on being safe, unchallenged, taking no risks, and making no waves.
THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF A LIFE
Choices are the building blocks of a life. Even the smallest choice has an impact on the road taken or not taken. (For example, my choice to end a sleepless night at 2:47 AM to finish this blog post means that it will probably actually get written.)
Often, as in my story above, we invent a convenient rationale for a choice that we would never have made were we willing to risk a different option. Sometimes when we see two viable options to solving a problem, we choose not to take either one, thinking that we have avoided the problem. But when passing on a choice, we are actually choosing not to choose – which is an annoyingly passive way of making decisions.
Poet W. H. Auden has said:
“Choice of attention – to pay attention to this and ignore that – is to the inner life what choice of attention is to the outer. In both cases a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be.”
This pithy statement tells us two things. First, making good choices is all about paying attention. Decision-making requires being awake, aware, and living in the moment. Allowing our days to slide by with little conscious reflection or thought means that many choices flutter into our minds and right out again. Second, our choices have consequences. Since each choice will add a jot or a tittle to the sum total of our lives (and some much more), we really should make each one count.
For example, I have deliberately chosen not to participate in social media. It is hard enough to escape the minutiae of everyday life without purposely signing up for it! That choice has a consequence; I have cut myself off from opportunities to be involved with many people. I have chosen instead to “go deep” with a few than “wide” with many.
I have made conscious decisions to listen to National Public Radio and not watch Fox News. When I choose to watch the stunningly accomplished young chefs on Chopped Junior, I have at the same time chosen not to read a book. When I choose to have coffee with a friend, I am choosing not to clean the coffee-spotted kitchen floor. When I chose to continue sponsoring five children through Compassion International after I retired, I eliminated the possibility of most discretionary spending. All of these choices had consequences.
Some choices are more monumental than we realize at the time we make them. As a Christian, I rely on the promise of the Holy Spirit to guide me, though I don’t always realize when it is happening. For example, in 2009 I was offered the opportunity to attend the Renovare International Conference in San Antonio, Texas. That meant flying to Texas alone. I am terrified of negotiating airports alone, but after weeks of indecision, I chose to take the risk.
That week changed my life and the life of my church: I was introduced to James Bryan Smith and The Good and Beautiful God as well as the concept of becoming an Apprentice of Jesus. My thoughts had only been about air travel. And indeed the flight home was miserable. Geese hit the engine half way through the flight and we had to go back to Houston and wait hours for a new plane. But God had in mind a spiritual journey which I am still on.
Every decision has a consequence. Our lives will be more solid, more thoughtful, and, I would argue, more meaningful if we pay attention to our choices and recognize that making no choice is a choice.