The Choices we Make Become the Trails we Blaze
Personal Challenge 5 of 20 End of Week 1 :)
Disclaimer: This blog got much longer than I intended. If you want to get to the point without all the exposition please skip to the bottom where the paragraphs are bolded. Thank you.
I don't remember my age or when or where I heard this, but there was time somewhere in childhood or adolescences that I heard someone say or something say that we become what we consistently choose. I think there are several metaphors for this and maybe in my mind I've mixed them all up but the basis of the idea was that whatever we choose to do becomes easier and easier until that's all we are.
Now that I think of it, it might have been something I read by C.S. Lewis. I think I remember it was something I read when I was home sick one day. The Great Divorce maybe? Or Mere Christianity? Or The Screwtape Letters? I don't remember maybe it was a theme in all of those books... If anyone recognizes it and knows what I'm talking about please feel free to correct me.
Anyway, at some point in time in words more eloquent than those that I am using here I was presented with this idea, that every time we are faced with a dilemma we make a choice and that choice is integrated into the fabric of who we are so that at some point if we keep making enough of the same choice we shrink down into only an essence of that decision.
This sounds confusing, let me see if I can phrase it more clearly. Okay here is an over-simplified analogy for the sake of clarity. You've probably heard the saying "practice makes perfect." If you take that thought to its extreme then every decision you make is "practice" and at some point you "perfectly" embody that decision to the extent that you might exclude the possibility of its opposite altogether.
More concrete example: Let's say that I am a child on the playground and I hear a bunch of screaming. I turn and see a group of kids huddled together and I run over and there is a fight. At this point as an individual I have several options: 1. I could do nothing 2. I could step in and try to break it up 3. I could look for help 4. I could join in on one of the sides. The choice is completely mine, but whatever I decide to do will most likely set the pattern for how I act in similar situations later in life. My most likely choice in this situation as a child would have been option 1 (morally probably not the best choice, but honestly this is what I would do). I would do nothing. I would maybe walk away or stand there helpless. Maybe afterwards I would cry, but at that moment I would do nothing. The next time there's a playground fight I might make the same decision. The next time I might not even go to see what's going on. I might just continue with what I was doing.
This pattern continues. Now let's say I'm an adult and I'm driving and see an accident. Based on my previous response to being a witness to some form of disruption what is my most likely action? Yep, unfortunately it is to do nothing. Maybe afterwards I feel bad. Maybe I berate myself. Maybe I justify my actions to make myself feel better, but the result is the same... Nothing. And so on as conflict enters my life and gives me the option to respond or not I continually choose NOT to and soon I don't even have to think about it. I eventually get to the point where I automatically do NOTHING or AVOID conflict or feel HELPLESS. As a child in the situation described I had at least 4 options, but after years and years of action I've narrowed it down to maybe 1.5. Option 1: do nothing. Option 2: Reconsider how I've been living my life. And it is MUCH easier to choose 1 and not give it another thought.
When I first read about this idea it horrified me.
No, I thought desperately, that can't be right. The choices I make in a situation today don't determine who I BECOME as a person. Do they? That would mean I'd have to face my fears or become a victim to them? And I CAN'T face my fears! (cue literal panic attack).
This idea caused a whole lot of tension through my life. I think the psychological term would be cognitive dissonance. It hurt. Every time I was faced with a dilemma I asked: what decision am I making? Why? And what are the implications? And more times than not I would choose not to do what I believed was right, I would choose to do what was easiest for me. Not every time though-- and maybe this is why the struggle lasted so long. I never completely made up my mind. Neither decision became easy.
I'll give you an example now of something I was very proud of and also very disappointed with. This story kind of shows what I mean about not actually committing to either choice.
When I was in college I went to a school that was not located in the safest area. I actually choose this school partially because of its less-than-ideal location. The school believed in service to the community and in facing the pain of life rather than building up walls and staying in a "pretty" area. This was something I wanted to learn to do.
There was a big emphasis on volunteer work and I had volunteered for a program which sent students to local elementary schools to read with students as part of an after-school program. I didn't drive and couldn't afford a car. The school offered shuttles but I hated calling and asking for help and I believed that more could be learned by "experiencing" the streets. So I walked a few miles to the elementary school and back. One day as I was walking past an apartment complex I heard a noise that sounded like a struggle coming from behind the concrete wall where the dumpster was housed. I paused and looked. There was someone in there. They weren't asking for help but something was wrong.
My natural instinct was to keep going. What am I going to do? I don't know them. I should just mind my own business.
I got to the end of the block thinking, but What if they need help? What if they are sick or hurt or die in there? What kind of person am I CHOOSING to be, to leave them like that, without even checking if they need anything?
I turned around and walked back. The person was still there.
"Are you okay?"
don't remember if this person ever spoke. What I do remember was that it was close to 100 degrees and humid and they were wearing a blue quilted, jacket and through the padding on the jacket I felt the thinnest, stick of an arm I'd ever felt. The person probably weighed less than a hundred pounds.
I asked if her arm was okay.
My natural reaction kicked in and I turned and practically ran away (I have an anxiety disorder and interacting with people usually brought on panic attacks). I was about 2 blocks down when it hit me that I probably should have done more. I didn't know this person but she was clearly in bad shape, starving to death. I didn't have money with me but could I have found some resources? Could I have offered to meet her somewhere with food? Helped her look for a shelter? At least asked her for her name?
I thought about going back, but I'd gone back once. My heart was racing and I told myself I didn't have the courage to go back again. This time I chose my usual option 1. I did nothing. I kept going.
She could end up dead in another week. One of the voices told me.
It would be your fault.
I tried to help, at least that was something.
It wasn't enough.
You're a coward.
I know. Next time I'll do better.
You won't. You didn't do better this time, what will change next time?
So, why am I telling you this? What's the point of it all? Good question. The truth is I got off track in my reminiscing about the past. Here is what I wanted to say: Last night something occurred to me. I had spent a long time living in the "shadow side" of this message. I made a habit out of indecision and beating myself up afterwards. I had grown to dislike this philosophy that I couldn't escape. Last night it clicked that there was a piece I had been missing. Here is what I learned:
Every time you make a decision that decision gets easier, but you can ALWAYS choose to make another decision and IF YOU DO, that decision will get EASIER instead. There is no set, final destination. The mistake I'd made in my understanding of this philosophy before was in thinking that eventually you would get SOMEWHERE or become SOMEONE when the truth is you are constantly moving in whatever direction you choose. I spent years making myself into a person that I hated and then I spent years making myself into someone I respect. There is no set time point when you stop evolving. There is no point where you can't choose to undo your previous choice. The metaphor was limited. It's not about choosing to become a choice, its about choosing to blaze a trail.
Here's a new metaphor. Think about water and rock. Water will naturally take the path of least resistance. There is nothing wrong with that. But, as water flows it also carves. If you pour water onto a perfectly flat, hard surface with no slope it will go only as far as the momentum will take it and it will spread out because all directions have "least resistance". If you keep pouring the water from the same spot in the same direction, however, eventually it will start to carve an indention in the ground. If later you choose to pour it in from a different spot it will flow toward that indention because the choice to repeatedly pour the water in one place has worn down a new path of least resistance. BUT if you continually pour from other places then another new path will form.
The metaphor is in creating pathways; maps, trails, rivers to guide us through our lives. When we make a choice we don't become that choice, we create a pathway with it. We are making maps but we can always choose to take our trail in a different direction and follow a new path. The freedom is infinite. We are not becoming what we choose, we are mapping our journey. The "HAVE TO" is gone. The dire and permanent consequence erodes. We GET to CHOOSE WHERE we want to go. We don't have to stress over every decision we make. For me this perspective shift was an epiphany and when it occurred a lifetime of pressure evaporated. That's why I wanted to share it. Maybe it won't be meaningful in the same way to everyone (or anyone) who comes across this, but it was meaningful to me and maybe someone else will one day get something out of it too.
Thank you for listening,