Monday, August 6, 2012

The road not taken

This morning I saw a Facebook post from my good friend StacyTrasancos:

Judging from the scene in my kitchen this morning, you’d never believe I used to dress in smart business clothes, march through labs where people did exactly what I told them to do, and sit in a quiet and tidy office solving complex problems.  Motherhood can be overwhelming — and sticky — at times.  Sigh.

I could just picture her in sweats, her hair put up carelessly with a comb and two or three pins, trying to exercise some calm and pull order out of chaos as five children noisily and messily ate their breakfasts, perhaps while swabbing up some spilled milk and scooping some free-range Cap’n Crunch off the counter.

But I can also picture the smile she had when she posted that thought.  This is the kind of moment Stacy will reflect upon as her children cross stages to receive diplomas, as they step nervously up church aisles to be wedded, as they themselves try to wrestle some kind of calm out of their own kids’ anarchy while Grandma looks on fondly.  And Time will embroider the scene in threads of gold and silver for her to carry through the rest of her days.

And so I couldn’t help but remember the final stanza of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.[1]

This dovetails quite nicely with a passage we find in G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, in the chapter titled “The Suicide of Thought”: Every act of will is an act of self-limitation.  To desire action is to desire limitation.  In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice.  When you choose anything, you reject everything else. … If you become King of England, you give up the post of Beadle in Brompton.  If you go to Rome, you sacrifice a rich suggestive life in Wimbledon.”[2]

In economics, this is called “opportunity cost”: Given a set of mutually exclusive options A, B and C (for example), the opportunity cost of choosing A is the combined benefits of the excluded options B and C.  Now, most textbooks would merely work with a binary set of options; my point in dragging in a third option is that, the more options there are, the greater the perceived value of any one of them has to be to overcome the attractions of the others.  Conversely, the more closely aligned they are, the more difficult it is to choose any one of them.  As Prof. Barry Schwartz has explained, more choices available tend to lead to paralysis in decision-making, worse choices made and dissatisfaction with any decision.[3]

This, of course, is another reason why utilitarianism sucks as a moral system.

That Stacy gave up a promising career in chemical research to become a full-time mother is by no means an implicit judgment on, say, my omnicompetent sister Peggy, who has spent the last twenty years and change balancing her life between her very good career, her awesome family and her music ministry.  Nor is it an implicit judgment on any woman who gave up children and marriage in pursuit of a career.  Each, in choosing her particular path, has had to make personal sacrifices, and it’s in the nature of sacrifices that the thing laid on the altar is almost by definition good.

You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice.
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill;
I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose freewill.[4]

It’s not unusual, even in the most satisfactory of vocations, to have days where you look back on “the road not taken” (or, in Stacy’s case, the road she left) and wonder if your life might have been better, or at least easier, had you chosen otherwise.  But I have to laugh at the story a commenter posted on Jen Fulweiler’s blog about the Missionary of Charity who was being filmed as part of a documentary about Bl. Teresa of Calcutta.  As she was cleaning up a homeless person, one of the film crew exclaimed, “Sister, I wouldn’t do this for a million dollars!”  To which the missionary responded calmly, “Neither would I.”  She was doing it for better reasons.

 “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62).  Although, like my friend Elizabeth Hillgrove, you may go through some agony of uncertainty in discerning your vocation, whether it’s to full-time motherhood or a secular career in management or a life in the cloister, eventually you must commit yourself or allow life to carry you away. 

Whatever you choose to do with your life, there will be days where you wonder if you made the right choice.  That simply means things didn’t turn out the way you expected … and why should they?  There’s so much in life that you simply can’t control; and the reality is more than the ideal, not less. 

One of the keys to happiness is making the most of the choices you have already made, and not mourning too much the unknowable joys you never experienced of the road not taken.  For you have also been spared its unknowable sorrows.

But you must make your own choices, rather than let them make themselves.

Some more thoughts on choices from the Smug Ant.

[1] Op. cit. From Mountain Travel (1916).
[2] Op. cit., San Francisco: Ignatius Press (1908), p. 45.
[3] Schwartz, B. (2006). The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. Retrieved March 18, 2012 from YouTube:
[4] Lee, G.; Lifeson, A.; & Peart, N. (Composers).  (1980).  Freewill.  [Rush, performer] On Permanent Waves.  Morin Heights, PQ, CA: Rush and Terry Brown.