There have been times in my life when a major decision has roiled before me like a whirlpool. I’ve stood on the shores of choice paralyzed, unable to proceed for fear that I’d drown. There are times when I have put too much stock and weight into a decision—dressed it up to look more important than it really is. I’ve made hill decisions into mountains—enlarged a drop-sized choice until it looked like an ocean.
Some decisions are mammoth and (hopefully) long lasting: Should I marry this man? Will I have children? What do I believe in? Others are simply daunting: What do I want to be now that I’ve grown up? Should I pursue my passion as my profession, or make it a hobby? Will my dreams enter my reality? Or is it time to wake up?
Sometimes I’ve found the choice I have to make overwhelming. Instead of viewing decisions as steps along my life’s journey, I’ve feared them—made them out to be cages that would imprison me for eternity. Seeing a choice as a cage can be counterproductive. It creates the illusion that more than what really exists is as stake. Few decisions can’t be changed or unmade.
After a recent conversation, I’ve been reflecting on decisions—namely, how I’ve made them. As I look back on some of the larger decisions I’ve made over the course of my life, I notice three main paths to personal resolution: I’ve told a lie that sounded good, so I made it the truth. Like Gideon, I’ve laid my woolen fleece on the ground and waited for the dew. And sometimes (I wish more often) I’ve just known in my gut what I needed to do.
A Lie I Made Come True: I was twenty-one and living in Massachusetts when my mother died. A few days after the funeral, I left my grieving family in New York, and tried to resume my life in Boston. Then someone asked me if I planned to move back to Brooklyn. Until she posed the question, I hadn’t given moving back the slightest thought. But I felt guilty saying that, so I lied. I told her that I was going to finish the school year (I was a teacher then), take stock of how my family was doing, and then make my decision.
When I said it, my reply was a lie. I had no intention of moving back to New York (though I wondered how much longer I could manage driving from Boston to Brooklyn and back every weekend). After I said it, however, my lie started to make sense, and so that’s exactly what I did. And somewhere between September and May, I made the decision to move back into the house I grew up in to be physically and emotionally present for my family indefinitely.
My Wool Fleece: I found the college application process utterly overwhelming. Every aspect of it was daunting. I had no idea where I wanted to go. (I just knew that I needed to go far enough away to feel as though I’d left home.) I’d never been judged by strangers in such an intimate way—strangers peering into so many facets of my life—judging my transcript, judging my essays, judging me and everything I’d done up to that point. Failure to impress never seemed so possible.
During one of my interviews, I was asked to open a window. I was already feeling inadequate because I couldn’t remember Walt Whitman. My interviewer had previously referenced “barbaric yawp,” and asked who coined the phrase. Having read Leaves of Grass not more than a semester or two ago, I could completely recreate in my mind the look and feel of my well-worn copy—the black and white cover photograph, the pale yellow border, his bearded face, my copious notes written in the margins with my then favorite pen (a blue, fine tip, Pilot better ball point stick). I could remember everything about Walt Whitman except for the one thing the interviewer asked me—his name.
And so there I was, feeling defeated, answering subsequent questions with one part of my brain while the other part ran through the catalog of authors we’d read at the same time: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and…and…AND? And then I found myself trying to open a particularly (dare I say defiantly) uncooperative window, and failing.
So while part of my brain was still trying to mine Whitman’s name from the caverns of my memory, the other part was worrying that this window opening request was really a test to see if I understood the basic leverage principles of physics, or had the observational skills to notice that the window was in fact locked (or painted shut) and so couldn’t be opened, or some cruel psychological experiment to study my response to the stress of perceived failure. In the end, I got the window open (with the interviewer’s help), I remembered Whitman’s name (after what felt like an eternity), and I wasn’t at all surprised when the college sent me a rejection letter.
All that to say, I felt overwhelmed by the college application process—every nook and cranny of it was a colossal chore. When I received four acceptance letters, I was almost disappointed. A part of me yearned for the simplicity of having only one option. Not knowing which way to go, I decided to lay my fleece before God. I knew that any private college’s tuition would be beyond my family’s means, so I made my fleece about money. I asked God to choose my college for me. How would I recognize His choice? It would be the school that gave me the most generous financial aid package. One college offered me next to nothing, two offered standard scholarships, but the fourth blew the other three out of the water and into orbit. My choice was simple at that point.
A Gut Feeling: When you know, you know. Sometimes my gut feeling is one of comfort, confidence, and peace. Sometimes it’s the absence of angst—or simply not feeling as though I’m fighting against the current. Where is the evidence? Where is the data? There is none. There’s just this feeling—this knowledge whose source is vague and intangible.
I used to be afraid of getting proposed to before I was ready with my answer. But by the time my husband proposed, I knew he would get a yes—make that a YES! If I had to say why, I could come up with lists. I could say that being around him (keeping in mind I’m an introvert) is as easy as being with myself. I could list all his finer points, our common interests, his sense of humor, and how fully he accepts every part of me (even the illogical, OCD, nerdy, awkward bits). I could tell you that he complements me by being strong in areas where I’m weak, and that he isn’t intimidated by my strengths. I could give you many quantitative reasons, but that would be like confusing the symptoms for the disease. My head didn’t choose him, a deeper part of me did. The decision to marry my husband started as a small seed of comfort and peace. And by the time he got down on one knee, it was a deeply rooted tree of knowledge, assurance, and certainty.