Decisions and Consequences

The human capacity to make bad choices simply astounds me.  Bentham probably had it right that people, in general, desire to make choices that lead to pleasure and avoid pain, so it is painful indeed to witness deliberate choices that have such predictably painful outcomes yet are made with the illusory hope that something good will happen.  Most of the street people I used to work with never intended to live the way they did, and they usually had some sort of plan for making a new decision today that would lead to a better life tomorrow.  Most of those plans made no practical sense, and the predictable outcomes were not promising.  Two teenage girls I know, both fetal drug and alcohol babies themselves, are pregnant and have some vague idea about becoming good moms living ordinary small town lives in comfort.  But with little education, poor coping skills and no job prospects, their day-to-day decisions are leading them farther into a Dickensian darkness in spite of the competent care and wise counsel they have been receiving from others. 

Part of it has to do, I suspect, not only with the failure to look ahead at the probable consequences of any given decision, but also with the inability or unwillingness to do so.  Whether that inability is inherent or due simply to a lack of education and training, I don’t know.  An old Club of Rome report once asserted that the huge majority of human beings live in tiny little worlds of concrete immediacy with no desire or ability to think in the abstract, envision a long term future, or calculate consequences, and had a deep suspicion of, rather than appreciation for, those who do.  The Club of Rome is not known for the accuracy of its own thinking, so take it for what it’s worth.  The point is that it’s not just about street people or teenage moms.  The net is far broader than that.  For example, it seemed to me that the so called tea-baggers of recent weeks displayed pretty much the same kind of decision making incompetence.  They are scared to death, want immediate action to relieve their fears, and the action they want would almost certainly lead in the opposite direction.  Many of my very earnest right-wing friends seem to fall into the same hole right along with the far left-wingers of my acquaintance.  They are both driven by fear and half baked ideas anticipating hoped for but highly unlikely good consequences while ignoring undesired but more likely bad consequences.  Every now and then, one of them actually gets enough power to act and we end up with something like Gingrich’s Contract with America and its disastrous results.

I’d like to claim purity for myself, but honest reflection doesn’t allow it.  I have had my own share of stupid decisions made with little consideration for probable consequences, and it’s only a combination of fortuitous luck and God’s amazing grace that have kept the worst from happening and the best often near by.  I doubt that the people around Jesus were much different.  The gospel record suggests that his disciples could be especially dense about decisions and consequences.  What is startling unique is that, in the light of the resurrection, they were able to make a break with centuries of tradition and custom, lay their worst fears aside, calmly assess the consequences, both near and far, and make decisions to follow where Christ had already led.  Perhaps that is an overlooked aspect of discipleship formation for our own day that could have a tremendous impact on the lives of ordinary, well educated, middle class people like me, political leadership at all levels, and a host of self-destructive social behaviors.

4 thoughts on “Decisions and Consequences”

  1. That is one beautiful sermon. Thank you! It brings back memories of those years of the community programs in Camden New Jersey. These were the years under Lyndon Johnson, when the world seemed interested in social renewal. I remember frustration with the lack of progress. It was pure secular social work but those tearful prayers linger.

  2. I had been asked to write a minor rule of life, how to live prayerfully and peacefully in a Christian way.What I am learning from this exercise is that any \”rule\” gets in the way of living a Christian life, if it is viewed as an absolute. We do have everything we need in the Gospel of Jesus and in his prayer. In the resurrection we have the means of living that faith, for only in our living in the firm belief that death is not the end, can we act without fear. Living in the illusory hope that something good will happen is precisely how we live in faith, and why communities of faith are important. Living in a culture of self and self proclamation it would be very difficult to live a life of a servant with out community to reinforce that aside from the concrete evidence, there is more. More to life than safety and security is what our faith is about. Our faith causes us to be blind to the probable consequences of caring for the diseased who no one else will touch, over the immediacy of acting to aid a child of God, a sister or brother in need of comfort and compassion. Our faith causes us to disregard fear, of what ifs, because we believe, against anything we can see or demonstrate, that there is more, appeared failure does not mean failure, death does not mean the end.Only when we fear the end of what is, is there death. When we put ourselves in control, looking for the concrete provable actions and outcomes, we deny our faith.When our goals are for the station of self, we are blind to the direction Christ has led.

  3. Bruno,That is a brilliant use of my argument to illuminate something of the nature of our Christian faith. I\’ll have to spend some time going over it more. As for rules of life, I had enough experience back east with Benedictines in the Order of the Holy Cross to have adopted much of it as my own.CP

  4. About Jeremy Bentham\’s Utilitarian idea that people, all in all, tend to choose pleasure and avoid pain in their choices. This was bortowed, basically, from classical Epicurean ethics, and the Epicureans taught this as a moral way of choosing. Freud in the late nineteenth century, came to question this, and wrote \”Beyond the Pleasure Principle\” to reflect his clinical experience with his psychotherapy patients, who very often seem to make self-defeating and even self-destructive choices. But the same pattern is found in ascetics and idealists, who even make self-sacrificing choices, as some patriots (and Japanese kamikaze pilots and Islamic \”martyrs\”) have done. Hagiography is full of such stories, all which brought Freud to conclude there exists a Totenwunsch or Death Wish as a part of every living thing, alongside the instinct for self-preservation and self-gratification in healthy beongs. A lot of suicides and also the phenomenon of mass murderers can be explained along those lines. Dr. B

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