The Choices We Make

portrait-gertmanI am directionally impaired. When I lived in New York City, without fail, every time, that I got out at a new subway stop I went in the wrong direction. Even when I tried to anticipate that my instinct was to go the wrong way, and go the other way, I still ended up going the wrong way. Imagine then, the sinking feeling of dread in my stomach when I first moved to Minneapolis and found myself driving north on 35W. I immediately called my father to tell him that there was no way I was ever going to find my way around this city. I was driving NORTH on 35W!!!
Now, most of you are probably thinking — Rabbi Gertman just get a GPS. I have one, and when I follow it, it is wonderful, but I have also learned that I am much better at listening to people than to machines! I often make a wrong turn, miss an exit, or just completely ignore my GPS. It is something I am working on. At times I also make the decision not to use my GPS. I think that I know where I am going, or I am to lazy to plug in all of the information, or I am too impatient to wait for the information to load. I make a choice and I live with the consequences. Often times the it is an unplanned detour. In this I have found reward and punishment. Finding a new way to go somewhere, learning that I actually know the city better than the GPS, discovering shortcuts are all positive outcomes of deciding not to garner help on directions. Being late for a meeting, missing a performance or leaving a friend to wait are all negative consequences of these poor decisions. And they are damaging, trust me I have experienced all of them!
We have so many choices to make in our lives. This is both a blessing and a curse. Personally, I was able to choose the college I wanted to attend, the country where I wanted to study abroad, the city I wanted to live in after graduation, the profession I wanted to pursue. When I was ordained I was able to take the job that was the best fit regardless of the location. In my personal life I can choose to date or not to date, I can choose whether or not to get married and if I want to have children. I can choose to be vegan or vegetarian, to eat only organic or only unprocessed foods that are not GMO. At the grocery store there are endless options for everything I want to buy from toothpaste to shampoo to nut mixes. We are very lucky to have all of these choices, but they could drive a person crazy. I think that often times the abundance of decisions we must make every day heightens our anxiety.
I am a bit of a perfectionist and I am fairly risk averse. I spend much time and energy analyzing my decisions, weighing the negatives and the positives, trying to foresee the outcome. I hate the thought of making the wrong choice. Yet, so often there is not a clear right choice. It is not possible for me to make a decision with the utmost certainty that it will have the best possible outcome. I am amazed by how I do not know what decisions to make for myself, but the “experts” have decided they do. In popular magazine articles, newspaper op-eds, television panels, and social media, we are bombarded with their opinions.
These “experts” tell us exactly what we should do in almost any given situation. They also let us know that if we take an alternative path, we are going to ruin our lives. We are told to eat local, no eat organic, no eat only what you can find that is both local and organic. Get married young and have children right away, it is healthier for the mother and the baby. No, wait to have children; children with older parents are more successful. Fathers need to take more vacation, spend more time with their children. No, they need to work harder and make more money so that their wives can stay at home. Same sex marriages are going to ruin children. No, as long as there are two loving parents in a home it does not matter what their gender is. Two parents are better than one parent, but if a woman wants to have children and is unmarried she should have one on her own. This will make it impossible for her to ever get married. No, this will make her more respected; she had the courage to pursue her dreams.
The opinions on whether and how a woman should work are endless. Sheryl Sandberg, CFO of Facebook said that women need to sit at the table. Women must aspire to climb the corporate ladder and the men at the top are obligated to support and actively encourage them. In reaction, journalist Vanessa Garcia came out encouraging women not to lean in, but to stand up straight. She argues that leaning in is the same as giving in to the male controlled business culture. Then, Deborah Spar, the president of Barnard College in New York City told all women everywhere that the only women who ever had it all are fictional, found on TV and in movies. She reminds us that “Every woman, every person, at the top makes trade-offs”.
However, we want the options without the trade-offs. We want to be able to have and do it all and we are so afraid that we will miss out that we become paralyzed by the plethora of choices. There is even a term for this – FOMO – fear of missing out. Most of us have it. It is the reason we check Facebook every five minutes, and yes I do this also, to make sure the choice we did make did not cause us to miss out on the most fun, most exciting, most meaningful event of our lives. It has become such a problem that there is an abundance of articles on how to deal with this issue: 3 Strategies To Beat Your Fear Of Missing Out; 4 Ways To Combat Midlife FOMO; How To Handle FOMO At The Office. We need others to tell us how to relax and enjoy the choices we have made. Not only do we want a guarantee that what we are doing is right for our future, we also want to know that our actions are the best for right now. We want to know we are raising our children correctly, that we are treating our partners well, and that we are good at our jobs. We post incessantly on Facebook so that we get the immediate gratification of knowing that what we are doing is worthwhile.
Of all the books and articles I have read my favorite is: “Why the woman who has it all Does Not Exist”. In it Deborah Spar reminds her readers: “Wonder Woman doesn’t exist. She is fiction, and you are real. Building a life on fantasy is never a good thing. Just because we are told we can do it all, does not mean that we should”. In truth, we can’t do it all, we can’t have it all and we can’t be whatever we want. Sorry, our parents sold us a bill of goods on that one. I am talking about all of us here, not just woman. I am never going to be a cartographer or a great musician for that matter. I learned that when I tried to play cello. My bow would be going up when the notes were going down and it would be going down when the notes were going up. I made a choice and it was a bad choice. It was a decision that caused me to have to carry a large and heavy instrument to and from school on a regular basis, it caused my parents’ ears to suffer and it caused me quite a lot of frustration, but in the end I learned a great deal from my mistake. I learned that I am physically stronger and mentally more determined than I had thought. I learned that I could handle bad orchestra teachers and having to do something I hated. I also learned that I would not be pursuing a musical career. It was a bad decision but I learned more from it then if I had decided not to play an instrument at all.
Another bad decision that I think we can all relate to is one in the realm of dating. How many of us have dated the absolute wrong person. We have ignored all of the advice of the people around us because we were sure that we could make it work with this person. These can be the relationships from which we learn the most. We find our true selves, what we want from another person, and our resilience. They often lead us to find the right person.
We need to stop being afraid of the negatives, of the possibility that we might choose incorrectly, we might fail, we might close the wrong door, make an irreversible decision. Whatever decision we make, we will learn from its outcome. We will grow from its consequences. All we need to do is look to the Israelites to understand this. A trip that should have only taken them weeks took them 40 years. And no, it was not because Moses could not follow directions. It was because they had a lot to learn. They did not know how to be free. They did not know how to govern themselves. They had no understanding of how to interact as a community. They learned all of these lessons while wandering in the desert. They learned them in the midst of making very bad decisions. Remember the golden calf! The Israelites engaged in idol worship. They broke one of the Ten Commandments. Still they were forgiven.
We are still enslaved and we are still learning. We are enslaved by the fear of not being perfect. We have the time and the lessons of these High Holidays to try to move ourselves farther from Egypt and closer to the Promised Land. Isaiah asks us in this morning’s Haftorah portion: “is this the fast I desire… A day for you to starve your body? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush And lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, A day when the Lord is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: To untie the cords of the yoke. To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.” The prophet Isaiah is telling us that starving ourselves and flogging ourselves does not fulfill the intention of the fast. These things are for show, they make us look like we are repenting, like we are changing, but they do nothing to transform us. This is not how we improve ourselves or our world. Rather, we show that we are taking the commandment seriously when we alter our actions so they help others and ourselves.
Isaiah wants us to free the captive. Each one of us is captive to something. For many of us the master is the plethora of choices we have to make and the unsolicited advice on how to make them. These have paralyzed us; they have wrought us incapable of moving forward. We are enslaved by the tyranny of seemingly relevant choices that all play on a fear we have. We are afraid of being different, not being liked, of not being attractive and of missing out. We worry that we will be unsuccessful, that we will fail.
No decision is easy and there are no grantees that any decision is the correct one. One thing I can grantee is that we will all miss out on something we consider to be important and we will all fail at some point. That is the privilege and the burden of having many opportunities. It is the price for being a human being and it is what Yom Kippur is all about. Yom Kippur allows us to be human, flaws and all. It shows us that we can recover from our mistakes. Some of our mistakes are harmless and even beneficial. They teach us without hurting anyone or anything. Other mistakes require more work to mend. They require confronting loved ones we have offended or co-workers we have hurt. Even when we did not mean to cause pain or destruction, we are commanded to acknowledge the impact of our behavior in order to truly correct our actions.
Yom Kippur helps us to progress from a place of pain and foible to one of growth and maturity. All choices, good and bad, have the potential to move us forward. Hopefully this knowledge will free each of us to make the best decision possible with the information provided and then enjoy where it takes us. As we go into this New Year may we be renewed in our capacity to learn and grow. May we be able to step forward rather than stand paralyzed. As the former New York Yankee and oft quoted cultural philosopher Yogi Berra said: “When you come to a fork in the road — take it”! It may just lead someplace wonderful!