Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Character-defining moments

There are certain decisions in life that feel like character defining moments. They can be huge decisions or small decisions, but through them you feel a significant shaping taking place. To you, the decision is far more than just about WHAT you will do. It's defining WHO you are and who you will be. Are you career driven or people focused? Are you trusting or skeptical? Generous or self protective? Are you following God's will or your own?  Are you acting out of fear or love?

What makes these decisions especially hard is that the best choice is not obvious. Your head may be telling you one thing while your heart says another. You lean one way one day and the other way the next. Your friend offers one piece of advice, another the opposite. The result is an even tug of war where you are left exhausted but frozen in place.

A few years ago I was faced with one of these decisions. My older cousin was very ill and I had a gut feeling that she would not make it. It was May and my prestigious internship was starting in a month. Something deep inside of me told me I should turn down the internship and fly home to help care for her. I agonized over this decision for days. Was this just me wanting to be a hero? Would me going home make a difference?  Was I afraid of turning down this tremendous career opportunity? Would I live regretting my decision, either way?

In the end, I made the easier decision. I took the internship. Five months later my cousin passed away.

To this day I still think about that decision. I look at the picture of my cousin sitting on my dresser and in some ways I feel I let her down. At the same time, my head tells me that if I'd gone home it's doubtful she'd have lived any longer or that I could have made much of a difference.


But maybe the decision wasn't meant to be about her, but it actually was about me. Are there times when we sacrifice, not for the other person, but for the sake of our own character?  Or, is that just another form of selfishness, like the do-gooder who inflates his own hero-image?

I'm seeing a counselor at the moment and we are talking about my high levels of anxiety.  I'm trying to understand why I struggle so often with decisions and navigating my inner voices.  My decision to go home to my cousin was just one of the many decisions I've agonized over in the past. I nearly fell apart over my decision to go to graduate school. I'm currently freaking out about getting married.  Once I even fought with myself for days over what shirt to donate to charity.

In talking to my counselor I've realized that although I've never confessed to being a perfectionist, I have a deep fear of messing up my life and living with regret.

Although my Christian faith has given me many wonderful things, it has also left some scars. As I child, I yearned deeply to hear God's voice. I wanted Him to tell me what to do, to give me opportunities to participate in his work, like the missionaries I read about in books. This good desire, however, resulted in extremely high levels of confusion and anxiety. Was that God's voice? Was that my voice? What if I got it wrong?

There are two messages within Christianity. On the one hand, our decisions are terribly important because they are either within God's will or against it.  We are led to believe that if we seek God's will earnestly enough, He will guide us to the right decision. On the other hand, we are assured that God can take even our mistakes and use them for good.

Unfortunately for me, the first message always rang truer. I felt something was wrong with me because I wasn't hearing. I had the spiritual version of FOMO (fear of missing out) and was always second guessing my choices, searching for - what I was convinced existed - the one right answer.

But the second message also began to lose some of its reassuring power.  Not everything works for the good of those who love God (Romans 8:28). Sometimes good people get cancer. Sometimes you make the wrong choice and you can't go back.  If you are a person of faith, the only true assurance is in a long-term, eternal sense. Life on earth is brutally unpredictable.

Whether you are religious or not, I think we all secretly want to be part of a greater narrative. We want to draw a heroic arc to our lives and look back content and proud.

But the truth is, although we make our millions of little choices, we only have so much control. We are the creators of our destinies, but our medium is untamed watercolor, not predictable acrylic.

To embrace inner peace is to embrace failure and uncertainty. It's to embrace the inevitability that you will mess up. In religious terms, you will sin. In business terms, you make the wrong investment or career move. In social terms, you will hurt your friend.  In personal terms, you will disappoint yourself.

As Westerners, we subconsciously embrace the Greek view that Perfection = No Mistakes. We run from our errors, like a bunch of Obsessive Compulsives fleeing dirt. 

But in the Hebrew view, Perfection means being whole and integrated. The only way to be perfect is to embrace your faults and heal, to live in Grace.

I will likely always struggle with making decisions. Whenever I make a hard decision I still feel like I'm peering over the edge of a high dive, my stomach churning, terrified to jump, while everyone stares at me. 

But is a belly flop really worse than eternal angst? Is an ugly watercolor worse than an empty sheet of paper?

We will all mess up, our decisions will not be "perfect", we will each suffer and, worse, cause others pain. But perhaps it's in that pain and in those errors that we reach the better type of perfection: we break, we grow, and eventually we are made whole again.