Woman manuevering though a huge tower of shoes

“We All Make Choices”

I’ve caught myself saying something more and more. Though most of the  things we say are pretty dumb and banal — this is very much included — the increased frequency is notable and thus must have some meaning. So what, then, leads me to say “We all make choices…” so much?

For one, the phrase has a nice self-evident quality. It can’t be disputed with much seriousness. In this way it’s inert and vacuous.

But I typically find that I’m using the phrase specifically in cases where someone else has made a choice I disagree with. An ostentatious hairstyle that I don’t think works for them. Or going into a business that I’d personally never want to be in. Driving in a manner that I find thoughtless and unsafe. I rarely find I’m using the phrase when I feel someone has chosen something positive.

Tying back to its vacuousness, when I pass my judgement by saying “we all make choices” rather than “that’s a stupid/dangerous thing that person is doing,” I don’t own the judgement. The audience for my observation isn’t necessarily aware of what my thought on the choice this third party has made is. Perhaps they can take it as the empty, valueless phrase it is.

In this way, there’s something kind of nice about only letting judgments about other people pass with a relatively neutral phrase. “We all make choices” is a low-quality Rorschach test I pass onto the interlocutors of my inner dialog, rather than something that’s either forcing or encouraging them to join me in my strange little hovel of beliefs I’ve accumulated with varying degrees of care over the course of my life.

But I can’t get past the fact that I’m basically using the phrase as simply a less negative way to say “I don’t like that.” It feels cheap and easy rather than something I’m doing with conviction. It’s a place and time that I can and do say something somewhat mindless rather than something that’s specific and thoughtful.

We don’t all always have time to be specific and thoughtful. We make choices about when our energy will be well spent on a careful explication and when filler can suffice. If someone takes me up on “We all make choices…” then we can have a real conversation. Until then, it’s a choice I’ll probably continue to make, perhaps with a bit more thoughtfulness.


Focusing on the Right Decisions

I’ve learned a lot of things in my life. One thing I’ve only recently realized I’ve learned is this: the truly consequential decisions our lives are exactly the ones we spend the least time worrying about.

There are decisions we spend days and weeks obsessively pondering. Who should I marry? What job should I take? Which school should I attend? The answer to these questions do matter. To insist that they make no difference in your life would be foolhardy. But they matter a lot less than we think they do.

The day-to-day reality of your life is not sexy, but it’s where you really live. And decisions like who you share a home with and where you spend your days being able to pay for that home have influence. But their impact on your life can  pale in comparison to the vast number of unthinking decisions you make on a daily basis.

This is easiest to see in dieting and weight loss. Almost no big decision you make in your life really affects your weight. There are probably outliers who make a resolution that they will gain 80 pounds, or intentionally opt-in to a less-active life for the purposes of gaining weight. But for most people, most of the time, their weight is decided by the 100,000 minor decisions they make about food over the course of a year. Compare:

  • “Doughnuts in the break room?! I’ll have two, thanks.”
  • “Doughnuts in the break room?! That sounds good, but I don’t think I should have more than half of one. Want to take half?”

If you regularly choose one or the other side of that kind of dichotomy over the course of your life, you’ll wake up healthy or having gained 50 pounds. But you’ll probably never have said to yourself, “You know I think my life would be better if I weighed 50 pounds more than I do.”

These cumulative choices are everywhere. It’s no single choice, but rather 1,000 minor one in the course of holding a job that decides whether your boss secretly wishes to fire you or eagerly wants you to be promoted to be able to get even more opportunity to work with you. Your relationship with your husband is determined more by the way you choose to deal with him leaving the cap off the toothpaste, his dirty dishes in the sink, etc than by what he was like when you first met him.

There are important choice-points in life. But balanced on a scale, the slow drip into your life from the thousands of thoughtless or minor decisions you make vastly outweighs the large volume of the big choices. If you fail to bring your attention to all the small decisions in your life, you’ll suddenly wake up with a life you never chose. Life really is just a sequence of small decisions; a life can be shaped without realizing.


OPW: Harry Chapin on Tiredness

I recently stumbled upon a spoken track by the folk singer Harry Chapin called “My Grandfather,” and was pleasantly surprised by how much it resonated.

My grandfather was a painter. He died at age 88. He illustrated Robert Frost’s first two books of poetry. And he was looking at me and he said, “Harry, there’s two kinds of tired. There’s good tired and there’s bad tired.”

He said, “Ironically enough, bad tired can be a day that you won. But you won other people’s battles, you lived other people’s days, other people’s agendas, other people’s dreams, and when it’s all over there was very little you in there. And when you hit the hay at night somehow you toss and turn, you don’t settle easy.”

He said, “Good tired, ironically enough, can be a day that you lost. But you won’t even have to tell yourself, because you knew you fought your battles, you chased your dreams, you lived your days. And when you hit the hay at night, you settle easy. You sleep the sleep of the just, and you can say, ‘Take me away.'”

He said, “Harry, all my life I’ve wanted to be a painter and I’ve painted. God, I would have loved to have been more successful, but I’ve painted, and I’ve painted, and I am good tired, and they can take me away.”

Now if there is a process in your and my lives, in the insecurity that we have about a prior life or an afterlife, and God (I hope there is a God–if He does exist, He’s got a rather weird sense of humor…), but let’s just…

But if there is a process that will allow us to live our days, that will allow us that degree of equanimity towards the end, looking at that black implacable wall of death to allow us that degree of peace, that degree of non-fear, I want in!