Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…
From the moment we awake each day, we’re faced with countless choices. Red blouse or black shirt? Hair up or down? Green tea or café mocha? Most we make unconsciously, out of habit more than decisiveness, which is probably a good thing or we could find ourselves constantly facing what science now calls decision paralysis. When faced with too many choices (do we really need fourteen varieties of peanut butter on the grocery shelf?), it becomes easier to simply not choose – which, of course, in itself is a choice.
And then there are the big choices, with larger consequences. What to study in school; when and if to marry, and whom; where to live. Enlist in the military, buy that new car, accept that job offer. If and when we become parents (another choice!), it’s our job to teach our children to make wise decisions. Tough to do if we’re still in the process of learning that difficult lesson ourselves, and painful when we watch them follow our trial-and-error path. But if we’re lucky, we learn together and maybe they won’t make quite as many mistakes as we did along the way.
Society relishes watching people stumble over bad choices, whether it be celebrities – she married the guy how many hours after they met? – or politicians – he sent what kind of message from his congressional phone? – or the hapless people who display themselves on America’s Funniest Videos – what did that goof expect to have happen when he rode his bike off the roof of the garden shed?
And it’s far too easy to Monday-morning-quarterback the decisions of others, to make that determination of wisdom, or lack thereof, from a distance and after the fact when things fall apart. Too often we forget that even the most carefully thought out plan of action can lead to unexpected results. And while “it was meant to be” might salve the wounds for some, it shouldn’t be allowed to relieve us of responsibility for the choices we make.
It’s harder when the ones facing the painful consequences of poor decisions are loved ones. Then we have more choices of our own: when to (gently) point out logical expectations in the hopes of preventing another disaster; when to help bail them out of the often devastating results without enabling further thoughtless choices; when to simply be there to pick up the pieces and hold them when they cry.
I think this is a large part of why I enjoy writing fiction. Mostly, I hate making decisions in real life. You don’t want to dine with me at a new restaurant with a multiple-page menu; we could be there for hours while I decide. But when I write, I have something life rarely offers: control of the outcome. Decision paralysis isn’t a problem when I know where my characters’ choices will lead. Entering that dimly lit room alone with only a fireplace poker to investigate strange noises at midnight makes perfect sense to an author. I know who the bad guy is (okay, unless the characters get particularly obstinate and take matters into their own hands…fellow writers, you understand!).
Sometimes it’s good to take the road less traveled by; it does make all the difference. But do it with eyes wide open, not blindly or thoughtlessly, damn the torpedoes full speed ahead. Identify potential consequences and be prepared to face them with equanimity. It’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way, and continue to learn every day.
And that’s not a choice I take lightly.