Life’s most consequential choices, drive change at lightning speed. Indecision yields to decision only after we grow weary of endless ruminating, anxiety, ambivalence, and aimless drifting.

The path to those choices that have the greatest impact on our lives (and, by extension, other’s) is long and littered with compromises, missteps, dead ends, and ceaseless wandering in labyrinths with interminable options. No matter how gloomy, there is an inevitability about an uneven path as we evolve, confronted by decisions more complex and demanding. Characterizing missteps along the path to such consequential choices as failures is short-sighted. Our most important decisions don’t lie at the end of neatly paved paths, but beyond tempestuous seas, rugged mountains, and scorching deserts. It’s a rough and tumble process; a very messy business; this matter of coming to resolution on life’s biggest choices.

And so, ‘big’ choices. What are big choices? First, they are the hardest choices life compels us to make. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be BIG choices. And, because each life is different, the questions they ask and the answers demanded are yours alone. The big choices arise on the horizons of crossroad experiences. They emerge in the course of our encounters and experiences and, as such, vary from person to person as how we interpret them is unique. I remember being asked when I was in college if I wanted to “drop acid”. with a few friends. It wasn’t a one-off ask. I was surrounded by it, and it became for me a big decision. Over the course of my rocky internal deliberations, I came to understand my ambivalence arose from a belief that LSD would, of course, distort my thoughts and perceptions. I feared losing control of these. I see now that this has been a defining theme in my life for good or ill. It was a big decision that offered insight into what frightened me. More common crossroad experiences may concern marriage, or children, declaring a college major, a new job offer, moving to a strange place, or even the impulse to flip the bird at someone who cuts you off on the freeway. For some, it may be sitting alone and despairing in your car with a gun in your lap, signing a ‘do not resuscitate’ order, or removing life support from a loved one. There’s no shortage of the ‘big’ choices and no avoiding them either.

Curiously, many of the ‘big’ choices we make in contemporary American culture are not set in stone as they were a relatively short time ago. We have more choices to make rather than fewer- a mixed blessing adding still greater complexity to life. You see, there was a time when many of the big choices were made for us. It wasn’t too many years ago that most women were discouraged from contemplating a career, or the son of a blue-collar laborer dared abandon the legacy of pride in manual labor. You can imagine a father’s words to his son-“My father, his father and his father’s father all embraced a life not of pencil pushing, but working to create something with our hands.” Traditions and norms were not casually broken. While it may have felt oppressive, there was a kind of continuity regarding what one “did for a living”. Internal deliberations were unnecessary. Mining families begat mining families, military families begat military families, laborers begat laborers, and white-collar suburban executives begat white-collar suburban executives. The rich begat the rich. The poor begat the poor. Moreover, it was rare to marry above your station, or outside of your ethnic or racial heritage. Jews married Jews, Italians married Italians, whites married whites, blacks married blacks, Asians married Asians. Men married women and women married men. The rich married the rich, and commoners married commoners. Continuity and homogeneity were prized and decisions regarding such conventions were almost irrelevant. Such conventions, in some sense, took the ‘big’ out of ‘big’ choices. Choice was constrained by convention. It took considerable courage to wrest control of one’s destiny from the expectation of their social class. It was audacious and arrogant to think one had the right to claim ownership of these ‘big’ decisions, potentially breaking with longstanding and widely accepted traditions. Even as conventions figured prominently in the resolution of life’s biggest decisions, mistakes, of course, were made. But desperate to preserve one’s reputation, and the illusion of convention compliance, most developed workarounds. For example, poor work satisfaction hardly meant resigning because you subscribed to the maxim, “I don’t live to work; I work to live”. I don’t need to like my job. It is simply what I do day after day for a paycheck. I don’t concern myself with workplace dramas and have little concern for rising through the ranks or ambitions of moving to any place else. Who needs a resume if you worked for one company your whole life? Workarounds were necessary to preserve convention. For the married who fell out of love with their spouses, divorce was unthinkable. Instead, you discovered discrete alternatives, and so on.

The upshot of all this is that while many of the big choices may have been made for us in the past, the consequences of indiscrete missteps were often irreversible. This of course was well known but the passions of personal aspirations often trumped the need for caution.  The disparity between the big choice (even if such a choice was made for you) and actions set the scene for unique and very personal internal wars between claimed belief and conflicting action. Within the souls of the conflicted raged a multitude of civil wars. The moral strife experienced by those who ‘betrayed’ their choices engendered shame and honed to perfection the art of compartmentalizing. It was a skill you necessarily acquired in order to look in the mirror each morning. The irony, of course, is that so many of these ‘big’ choices which engendered such angst were made for us, not by us.

Our culture has evolved, of course. ‘Big’ choices must continue to be made but choosing is much less a matter of convention and more a matter of a process of discernment; a decision discovered at the end of a difficult path. Unlike convention-dictated choices, the path to choice is now unarticulated, sometimes hidden, or, at least obscured and ambiguous. And so now, profoundly personal but unsatisfactory choices seem to have greater personal gravity. Your choice is yours alone and not as before; a choice in name only, yet more accurately a deferral to convention. Alone one must consider whether there is a more suitable alternative and whether they are willing to stand alone with the new (and perhaps, contradictory) choices made. Instead of spending the rest of our lives learning to cope with the burden of secrets and internal strife, we might entertain casting off our ill-chosen ‘big’ decisions publicly. Neither option is an especially attractive one. So, the ‘big’ choices deserve time and a certain level of scrutiny to get to resolution and this takes me back to my opening statement:

Life’s most consequential choices, drive change at lightning speed. Indecision yields to decision only after we grow weary of endless ruminating, anxiety, ambivalence, and aimless drifting.

All our ruminating, fretting, and ambivalence creates the impetus for resolution. In this sense, it should be understood as useful and not wasted psychic energy. Some will disagree with me and argue the contrary; that quiet contemplation and exploring pros and cons along with potential consequences renders the most productive resolution. And this indeed may be partly true. But no one gets to resolution on truly consequential choices without losing some sleep.

And for those who seem unable to get to resolution, there are plenty of people happy to advise or emphatically make decisions for you. But ultimately, we learn the consequences of our decisions- even those offered by supportive third-party advisors- still leaves us standing alone with a choice we must own.

The positive impact in this unintentionally gloomy assessment is our ever-expanding choices promote a level of transparency that exposes even the most confident and thoughtful make decisions about life-changing matters only to discover they were misguided. We share this flaw which cannot help but promote increasing levels of compassion among those who see this as a fundamentally human imperfection that unites rather than divides us.

Freedom to choose is a blessing and a curse but, on balance, a truly consequential life will always bear the burdens free choice demands.

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