The Roads Not Taken

 

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?

There are 22 comments.

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  1. Trink Coolidge
    Trink
    @Trink

    A courageous and forward-looking post, Susan.   Well done.  Some of us lack the fortitude to shine so bright a light into the past.   Well done.

    • #1
  2. Trinity Waters Inactive
    Trinity Waters
    @TrinityWaters

    I categorize your post as one of those that helps people realize that they aren’t crazy after all, that there are others out there who are normal and think similarly.  The only twinge was your choice not to have children.  I have friends like you who have made that choice and I can’t help but think they’d have made great parents if they’d made the plunge.  But like you say, move forward without regrets, eh?

    Well written, Susan.

    • #2
  3. Quinnie Member
    Quinnie
    @Quinnie

    Thanks for sharing such personal and interesting reflections.   You have certainly made me stop and ponder my own life decisions.

     

     

    • #3
  4. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Trinity Waters (View Comment):
    I categorize your post as one of those that helps people realize that they aren’t crazy after all, that there are others out there who are normal and think similarly.

    Very insightful, TW. I did want others to know that they aren’t crazy, that we make all kinds of choices that help and hinder us. And yes, the one regarding kids–I’ve been told that–that I would have been a great parent. I used to say, well, we all give up something, whether we have kids or not. But they aren’t all equal. Thanks.

    • #4
  5. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Quinnie (View Comment):
    Thanks for sharing such personal and interesting reflections. You have certainly made me stop and ponder my own life decisions.

    That’s wonderful to hear, Quinnie. I think it’s wise to do so now and then. Especially if we can learn from them when we’re younger. I took a while to actually spend the time. Think we’re related? (kidding)

    • #5
  6. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Trink (View Comment):
    A courageous and forward-looking post, Susan. Well done. Some of us lack the fortitude to shine so bright a light into the past. Well done.

    Thanks, Trink. I don’t know about courageous. It’s more like a compulsion of mine, a wish to think aloud–on paper. I always appreciate your kind words.

    • #6
  7. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    I should do my own post on this subject. I have been thinking about my life paths lately. I had a call from an old friend that brought back the memories.

    • #7
  8. Trink Coolidge
    Trink
    @Trink

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    It’s more like a compulsion of mine, a wish to think aloud–on paper.

    I understand that compulsion.  Sometimes I herd that drive into a poem :)

    • #8
  9. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Every choice has consequences  – and even if just as an opportunity cost, every choice is an exclusion of other possibilities.

    For my part, I just want people to be more conscious about actively making choices, instead of just letting inertia sweep them along. The lazy road is such an depressing waste of talent and potential. Most people are terrified of the conclusions they would reach if they did an honest introspection.

    • #9
  10. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    iWe (View Comment):
    Every choice has consequences – and even if just as an opportunity cost, every choice is an exclusion of other possibilities.

    For my part, I just want people to be more conscious about actively making choices, instead of just letting inertia sweep them along. The lazy road is such an depressing waste of talent and potential. Most people are terrified of the conclusions they would reach if they did an honest introspection.

    For anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, iWe had a special OP  on the importance of our making choices and acting on them, not just letting opportunities pass us by.

    • #10
  11. Hypatia Inactive
    Hypatia
    @Hypatia

    I liked this post.  I was on the edge of my seat when you arrived at to-breed-or-not-to-breed.  I had my daughter kinda late.  But what struck me was that you were afraid you’d turn into your mother.  People say that, but–MY daughter is turning into ME!

    Who am I going to be, if SHE is  now the tall beautiful, intelligent  woman with the acting ability and the beautiful  singing voice? (DON’T  ANSWER THAT!!)

    I seem to be on the other side of your mirror in another way too. I don’t think I’ve ever made a concerted effort .to contact someone from as far back as high school.  But people do it TO me.  The first few times it happened, I assumed they wanted to re-establish a relationship.  But no.  What they want is closure. If I respond, that’s the end of it.

    Choices, hmmmmm……when I look back at the big ones, y’know, it didn’t seem like I really had much choice at the time–I did what I did in the grip of one drive after another: to reproduce! To return to the mountains to live!   To write!

    But I never thought about it this way before.  Your post was an impetus to memory and self-examination.

    • #11
  12. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Hypatia (View Comment):
    I liked this post. I was on the edge of my seat when you arrived at to-breed-or-not-to-breed. I had my daughter kinda late. But what struck me was that you were afraid you’d turn into your mother. People say that, but–MY daughter is turning into ME!

    Who am I going to be, if SHE is now the tall beautiful, intelligent woman with the acting ability and the beautiful singing voice? (DON’T ANSWER THAT!!)

    I seem to be on the other side of your mirror in another way too. I don’t think I’ve ever made a concerted effort .to contact someone from as far back as high school. But people do it TO me. The first few times it happened, I assumed they wanted to re-establish a relationship. But no. What they want is closure. If I respond, that’s the end of it.

    Choices, hmmmmm……when I look back at the big ones, y’know, it didn’t seem like I really had much choice at the time–I did what I did in the grip of one drive after another: to reproduce! To return to the mountains to live! To write!

    But I never thought about it this way before. Your post was an impetus to memory and self-examination.

    I have one great big smile right now, H. How sweet that you can look at your daughter with such joy–no kidding me!–and pleasure. Living in the mountains, or at least spending a few months a year, was a dream I had. But I would have to do it myself: with my husband’s health conditions, it’s not in the cards. But I’ll think of you doing that for me. Thanks so much.

    • #12
  13. mollysmom Inactive
    mollysmom
    @mollys mom

    I do so enjoy your posts.

    I would have to say that I fell into most of my major life events, kind of going with the flow on marriage, children, education, career.  My only firm decision was to return to the faith in Christ of my youth.  Yet looking at what life has given me, I have been deeply blessed.  My faith decision came in part by acknowledging that firm Hand that guided me through life despite my arrogant foolishness.

    • #13
  14. MichaelHenry Inactive
    MichaelHenry
    @MichaelHenry

    Well-written and insightful, SQ. My wife says this when we revisit decisions we’ve made in the past: “WE ALL JUST DO THE BEST WE CAN.” It’s very difficult to recreate the circumstances under which you made the four choices you discuss, and it’s so easy to revisit in hindsight and say “I should have….” All you and I can do is make important decisions based on the information we have at the time, relying on our judgment, character, and intelligence. So, I’m confident that each time you made your choice, “you just did the best you could.” MH

    • #14
  15. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    mollysmom (View Comment):
    I do so enjoy your posts.

    I would have to say that I fell into most of my major life events, kind of going with the flow on marriage, children, education, career. My only firm decision was to return to the faith in Christ of my youth. Yet looking at what life has given me, I have been deeply blessed. My faith decision came in part by acknowledging that firm Hand that guided me through life despite my arrogant foolishness.

    Although our faiths are different, I have felt that guidance for quite a while now. Was the guidance present when I made less productive decisions? Of course. But we have to pay attention, don’t we? Thanks, mollysmom.

    • #15
  16. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    MichaelHenry (View Comment):
    So, I’m confident that each time you made your choice, “you just did the best you could.

    Thank you, Michael. Since I am mostly a “d0-er,” and caught up in at least trying to do the right thing, I believe you’re right. Thank your wife for her insight!

    • #16
  17. Fritz Coolidge
    Fritz
    @Fritz

    The one choice that I made without thinking turned out to be the most important single “decision” I ever made —  asking my wife to marry me —  when we were both free-wheelin’ hippies big into the counterculture in 1968 no less — and she said, also without thinking, “yes.”

    Over all objections, raised by her parents, my siblings, and other friends and relations, we got married. Sure, it was kind of a hippie wedding (Beatles’ All You Need Is Love was the recessional), but a seriously Christian one as well (because I asked my draft counselor, a minister, to marry us, but he said no until we underwent counseling and he became persuaded that we understood what we were about to commit to —  we did and it was a good thing). We were well and happily married for 38 years till cancer ended our time together on this earth.

    I look back at my agonizing over other later choices —  back to grad school, career, where to move and make our home, jobs to seek, whether to adopt in the face of our infertility (yes! so glad!) and more. But none of these choices made as much or as positive a difference in my life, or could have without that first big one.

    Truly, our guardian angels were there to watch over us, “innocents abroad”! Thanks be to God.

    • #17
  18. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Fritz (View Comment):
    Truly, our guardian angels were there to watch over us, “innocents abroad”! Thanks be to God.

    What a beautiful story, Fritz. I’m so sorry about you losing your wife to cancer. I suspect that (like @mollys-mom said), someone had a Hand in that first big one. Thanks so much.

    • #18
  19. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    MichaelHenry (View Comment):
    So, I’m confident that each time you made your choice, “you just did the best you could.

    Thank you, Michael. Since I am mostly a “d0-er,” and caught up in at least trying to do the right thing, I believe you’re right. Thank your wife for her insight!

    Michael, “a mule can only do so much”

    • #19
  20. Hypatia Inactive
    Hypatia
    @Hypatia

    Fritz (View Comment):
    The one choice that I made without thinking turned out to be the most important single “decision” I ever made — asking my wife to marry me — when we were both free-wheelin’ hippies big into the counterculture in 1968 no less — and she said, also without thinking, “yes.”

    Over all objections, raised by her parents, my siblings, and other friends and relations, we got married. Sure, it was kind of a hippie wedding (Beatles’ All You Need Is Love was the recessional), but a seriously Christian one as well (because I asked my draft counselor, a minister, to marry us, but he said no until we underwent counseling and he became persuaded that we understood what we were about to commit to — we did and it was a good thing). We were well and happily married for 38 years till cancer ended our time together on this earth.

    I look back at my agonizing over other later choices — back to grad school, career, where to move and make our home, jobs to seek, whether to adopt in the face of our infertility (yes! so glad!) and more. But none of these choices made as much or as positive a difference in my life, or could have without that first big one.

    Truly, our guardian angels were there to watch over us, “innocents abroad”! Thanks be to God.

    Made me cry.  You may not get this, probably very few people would, but I think of Alcott’s book Little Women, and how the characters tried to be guided by the aspiration “to be a pilgrim” as Bunyan’s hymn says.

     

    • #20
  21. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    PHCheese (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    MichaelHenry (View Comment):
    So, I’m confident that each time you made your choice, “you just did the best you could.

    Thank you, Michael. Since I am mostly a “d0-er,” and caught up in at least trying to do the right thing, I believe you’re right. Thank your wife for her insight!

    Michael, “a mule can only do so much”

    Excuse me, PH. Do you want to explain that remark?? ;-)

    • #21
  22. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    PHCheese (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    MichaelHenry (View Comment):
    So, I’m confident that each time you made your choice, “you just did the best you could.

    Thank you, Michael. Since I am mostly a “d0-er,” and caught up in at least trying to do the right thing, I believe you’re right. Thank your wife for her insight!

    Michael, “a mule can only do so much”

    Excuse me, PH. Do you want to explain that remark?? ?

    It’s a line out of one of Michael’s books, At Random. Not a reference to you being a mule, sorry.

    • #22

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