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Life is about making choices. Lots of choices. Most of them are minor ones: what to cook for dinner, what book to read next, whether to take a walk. But some of our choices are significant, and they call to us to take notice of them. We can try to ignore them, but I think that G-d walks around with a two-by-four (or sends a guardian angel to do the work) and gives us a good solid whack to help us pay attention and step up. That usually gets my attention, and I try to discern what is calling to me.
I don’t spend much time reflecting on the past and the choices I’ve made. Like most people, I celebrate the rewarding outcomes and complain about the poor ones. But once the decision is made, and life moves forward, I rarely think about whether I made good or bad or smart or stupid choices, because all of those choices have brought me to this incredible, blessed moment. Yet recently I decided to spend time reflecting on my life’s decisions without judging or evaluating them; I thought I might be able to learn from them.
I focused on four major decisions in my life, since over time they have had the greatest impact. Those decisions had to do with the man I married, our decision about not having children, my commitment to friends, and my Jewish faith. I looked at each topic as dispassionately as I could, although it wasn’t easy. So many emotions, anxieties and conflicts were attached to each one that I was convinced I simply couldn’t be objective. I could shine a light on the past, knowing that shadows and sadness, as well as joy and passion would distort my view. I decided to examine these choices anyway.
I was raised in a mostly non-observant home. My parents assumed I would marry a Jew. I never asked them why they felt that way, and they never volunteered an explanation. So when I finally fell in love, the man wasn’t a Jew but rather a fallen-away Catholic. He essentially had no religion, and was perfectly happy with whatever choices I made regarding Judaism, given that my observance was minimal. So we married. He’s my joy, my rock, my partner, my friend and I am in awe of how our love continues to grow after 43 years. He has taught me how to love deeply, how to serve, what it means to be selfless (although I have a long way to go). I learned the meaning of sharing, collaborating, and compromising. He has been my best teacher. I also recognize that I abandoned the possibility of creating a Jewish home.
The second major choice was about having children. I was so naïve, I now realize. I was afraid I would “turn into my mother”; years later I realized that she actually did a pretty good job raising three kids. I didn’t trust myself, and feared that whatever mistakes my mother made, I was doomed to repeat them. I also believed (and still do, for myself) that I would do a terrible job of dividing my time between a husband, children and a profession. Everything would suffer, nothing would be done well. My husband had one child from a previous marriage (although I don’t know to this day how much that factored in). He said he would go along with my decision. I decided not to have children. It was probably the most selfish decision I have ever made. On one hand, it allowed me to devote myself to my spouse and to my work, and was probably a factor in having a strong marriage. I sacrificed a lot for that decision, but I live with it. Although I rarely dwell on it, to this day I periodically will hear a boy or girl’s name and think that might be a name I would have given to a child.
The third choice was regarding friendships. For many years I had few friends. I envied people who still were in contact with friends from grade school or even college. I have none. In this way I may have been a lot like my mother. I am an introvert, and friendship seemed risky: you could never know, over time, how things would turn out. It was safer to keep my own company. Over time, and I can only believe that this was G-d’s gift to me, I learned the joys of friendship. In the last ten years people have shown up that are just the best friends you can imagine. They are smart, loving, engaged, and I especially love that we laugh together. In the past I have ended friendships, always a painful process even if it made sense. Today, if I walk away from a friendship, I know I have other friends to rely on. The best friendships are reciprocal; giving of myself to these relationships can sometimes require sacrifice either in emotion or time, but those sacrifices are without question worth it.
And the fourth choice was regarding faith. Many of you may know of my involvement with Buddhism. In some ways I think that path was necessary, because I learned a great deal, especially about myself. I also learned the great value of meditation, which is what created my heartfelt connection with G-d, which I didn’t realize was possible and for which I am deeply grateful. It made sense for me to return to Judaism and G-d, but in a whole new way, one filled with devotion, study, prayer, meditation and observances. All of these practices are limited due to the commitment I made 43 years ago to the man I love, but also because of the personal level of commitment I’m prepared to make. But I do my best to serve G-d and live in gratitude.
Finally, I wanted to see if there were factors that crossed all these major choices in my life. I was surprised to see that “sacrifice” and “learning” were inherent in all of them. Sacrifice required me to give up something precious, but in sacrificing I learned something very important. Sacrifice also opens up one’s life to possibility: when I am prepared to give up certain things, for better or worse at that particular time, it creates an unpredictable yet intriguing path for participating in life. When I surrender to outcomes I realize paradoxically how little I can control, although the choices were and are all mine; they enrich my journey and create opportunities for learning and growth. They also have taught me how to serve G-d and others. For me these truths are humbling and rewarding.
What are your thoughts on making life choices?