Thursday, January 17, 2013

on paralyzing indecision and finding perfection

There are two questions that I really hate hearing and answering:
  • Where do you want to eat tonight? 
  • What are you doing with your life?
Both of these questions cause me to cringe, freeze up, and do my best to deflect the decision-making process: "Oh, I don't know. Where do you want to eat? I like everything." Or, "Most days, I feel I have absolutely no direction in life, and my desire and reason to pursue any and all available options is dying a swift death. So, um, what do you think I should do with my life?"

I'm currently reading The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life by Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens. In the introduction on choosing faith, they recount the story of Buridan's ass:
"The beast in the parable starves to death because he is faced with two equally desirable and equally accessible piles of hay. Having no determinative reason to choose one over the other, he perishes in indecision."
This story reminds me of an excellent elder who served in my mission. One night, he had a nightmare that he returned home and fell in love with two equally wonderful and beautiful girls and couldn't decide which one to marry. He woke up in a panic.

It can seem silly to agonize over the choice between good options, but when none of them stands out as particularly compelling and all are problematic in one way or another, I end up stuck. I wonder: should I pursue my education further? If so, where and in what? should I teach at a public school, charter school, community college, or work in a different field altogether? Should I move away from Utah? If so, where?

I don't know the answer to any of these questions. 

The tentative answers I come up with shift on a daily basis. My most recent go-to answer? I'm just going to find a nice man to marry who can provide me with a home, food, and health insurance, leaving me free to create my own patchwork, flexible, non-committal career of part-time teaching, part-time writing, part-time volunteering. And I'll have babies too. This seems the most practical and appealing option at the moment. It reminds me of this profound quote I stumbled across in graduate school while writing a paper called "Women's Heads Weren't Made for Thinking": 
"A woman should have the same chances in the professions as a man. But a woman's work about the house is never ending; the care of a child is the sweetest of professions; and that woman is neglectful of her best interests who goes out into the world to work when she can get a nice man to do the work for her." 
--Sarah Grand (1854-1943), feminist activist
Amen, Sarah Grand.

But really, all kidding aside, I have no idea where my life is going after August 2013. Doors I thought were open are now closed, and I don't know what is next. I try not to think about it as much as possible, but the question of where I'm going still manages to pop into my head unbidden about 15 times a day.

I know this post feels pathetically self-absorbed at this point, so let's shift gears. I'm interested in moving beyond what I should do (I hate thinking about that anyway) to consider what any of us should do when we're caught in a place of paralyzing indecision and uncertainty.

I've always been fascinated by concepts of control, choice, and creation that underlie the gospel plan: the idea that each of us has power to reclaim our lives from devastation, despair, and difficulty and choose a different path. Granted, there are many of our life circumstances that we can't control, but these limitations don't extinguish our God-given ability to choose: sometimes our choice is to accept circumstances and change attitudes; sometimes our choice is to leave negative circumstances or create new circumstances; sometimes our choice is to hope and and wait and work around the challenges we can't change. But we always have a choice. 

To me, this is one of the most empowering messages of the gospel. Because of Jesus Christ, none of us need remain a victim of mortality.

Last week, I invited my students to read this article by Thomas Plummer about what he calls the "Ophelia Syndrome." It refers to the human tendency, exemplified in Ophelia from Hamlet, to take the easy way out: "Ophelia is worse than naive. She is chronically ignorant, chronically dependent, chronically submissive. She is an adult who chooses to be a baby, one who does not know her own opinions and who would not express them to an authority if she did." As a result of these characteristics, Ophelia's fate is controlled by the men around her. She never develops the autonomy to think and act for herself. She perishes because of her inability to make an autonomous decision.

Plummer focuses on how this syndrome can play out in academia, but I think we are especially likely to fall into this syndrome in our spiritual lives and in the decisions we connect to guidance and direction from God (decisions about education, career, family, etc.)

It's easy to become paralyzed like Burdian's ass or Ophelia when we are waiting for a sign, for a surety, for others to make our decisions for us. But God is unhappy when we put our decision-making abilities aside in an expectation that He will take care of everything for us or always spur us to action.

I'd love to receive a angelic visitation to tell me about the path my life should take, where I should work, where I should live--but I feel that God doesn't typically give angelic visitations just to push us towards one pile of hay over another. He deeply respects our agency and wants us to make a choice and live with its consequences. God is willing to direct us and steer us away from wrong when we stay close to Him, but His ultimate goal is to make us like Him. And how can we become like Him unless we develop the autonomy to act for ourselves? to choose a pile of hay?

So in circumstances where we have a variety of good options and the Spirit isn't nudging us in one direction or another, how do we make decisions?

I don't know (I suffer from indecisiveness to the point where it could probably be diagnosed as a disease, so why would I have a definite answer to this question?), but here are my thoughts right now:

One of my professors once said that it doesn't matter much what you do for a profession; rather, it matters how you treat the people you work with. Sometimes I'd like to feel like I've been "called" to a particular career or geographical location--that there is one right place for me. But I think now that, at this point in my life, there isn't a right place for me to live or a right job for me to work or a right person for me to marry. Instead, there are lots of good but not perfect options for me to choose from, and there is, most importantly, one right person for me to become. Becoming that person is more about my choices and individual progress in treating the people around me the way God would treat them than it is about finding a right situation in life.

We can wonder and wait for a magical person with magical spark to come along before we get married. We can wait for a perfect educational program fit and funding package. We can wait for the awesome job that is fulfilling and challenging and exciting to go to each day. We can wait for the perfect living situation. Sometimes these things plop into our laps and make us happy (I love my current job intensely, for example), but more often I think we have to decide on a good but imperfect option and choose to find the joy and perfection in that option.

And thank goodness it is like this because it is in the imperfect situations that we learn to become like God--in rubbing shoulders or working with or marrying imperfect people who don't meet all of our expectations--in working day after day at a mildly boring, mildly frustrating job--in living in a place where it becomes far too cold and the culture is quirky--in pursuing a life that sometimes makes us happy and sometimes disappoints us.

In this space of imperfection we have our best option of choosing and creating perfection--in seeing the divinity in our friends, neighbors, coworkers, spouses--in developing the challenge in our job--in finding the beauty in the sub-zero, icy, snowy weather--in creating order out of chaos, beauty from ashes--or satisfaction from hay.

So, I'm still pretty lost, but I'm not panicked or afraid. I don't know where I'll be living or working in eight months, but I have a direction: wherever I am, I'll try to be like God: a creator of good things instead of a spoon-fed consumer of them.


  1. Have you ever read the book "The Paradox of Choice"? Its one of my very favorite books in the whole world. In fact, I'm going to buy it and read it again.

  2. You may still feel lost, but give yourself a big pat on the back for a superbly written post about it. Seriously. Some great thoughts here.

  3. I don't even know you, but I appreciate your thoughts. They are beautiful and sincere. And hope-filled.