I have acquaintances, you probably have some too, who have a life long habit of making bad life choices. It’s a common assumption that it’s a phenomenon of the poor and chronically unemployed, but I’m talking about run of the mill middle class people who populate neighborhoods of ordinary middle class life.
One of them, well into his later years, went through life almost but never quite making it, according to his idea of what making it was. One consequence of habitually making bad life choices has been his creation of a personal world that has become smaller and smaller. His world is now a house he refuses to leave but is unable to care for, as he is unable to adequately care for his own needs. His life is defined by diseases he doesn’t have while ignoring health issues he does have. He complains of loneliness, but uses every excuse to avoid going outside. He greedily consumes help as he requests it, but stubbornly refuses wise counsel about how his life might be made better. What he does is grumble. In “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis wrote about a grumbler whose world, growing smaller and smaller, finally became the grumble, and then nothing at all. It didn’t have to be that way, but it’s the way the character in the story chose. The alternative to choose a larger, better life was open; all that was needed was to give up grumbling.
Most of us go through life making good and bad life choices, lucky and unlucky guesses. We take chances, some foolish, many well calculated, we avoid taking too many risks and try not to endanger ourselves too often. In words attributed to Mark Twain, “Good judgement is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgement.” In other words, we muddle through and get on with life.
People who go through life making a habit of bad life choices seem to be motivated by ignorance, fear and stubbornness. By ignorance, I don’t mean stupidity, lack of intelligence, or even lack of education. It’s the kind of ignorance that chooses to believe what is verifiably untrue, or highly improbable. One acquaintance is a confirmed climate change denier who argues that the majority of scientists affirming climate change are obstructing the few who don’t, just as the majority of educated people who believed the sun orbited the earth obstructed the few like Galileo and Copernicus who didn’t. He chooses to ignore the obvious: that Copernicus and Galileo probed beyond the limits of previous observers to discover new facts that created a new, more accurate picture of the world. In like manner, a few scientists in our time have probed beyond the limitations of old ways of observing to discover new facts about global warming that peer reviewed examination have proven to be true. What stands in their way are a few old timers who, in a sense, refuse to give up the idea that the sun revolves around a stationary earth. It’s one example of the kind of ignorance that infects otherwise reasonably intelligent people.
Fear and bad life choices go together. I mean the kind of fear that no good decision can be made unless every possible contingency is given adequate consideration. It means there is always one more rock to look under, one more possibility to consider, one more outcome that could be better than all outcomes considered so far. It means any choice actually made was the wrong one because something better was still ahead, or had been left behind. A mark of effective leadership is the willingness to take calculated action based on adequate enough information. Adequate enough is never all there is or might be, and taking action means accepting consequences without obsessing about what might have been. Evening prayer in A New Zealand Book of Common Prayer reads in part, “It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done; let it be.” It’s sound advice. We can’t change the past, we can only change the future, so let it be and move on, but move on wiser (see Mark Twain above).
Related to fear, habitually making bad life choices is reinforced by willful stubbornness. It’s the suspicion that others are trying to push in a direction one doesn’t want to go, or is unsure of, combined with latent distrust in others’ competency to give advice. It’s a sense that it’s safer to dig in one’s heels and not do anything than be shoved or pulled into what one is unsure of. It’s a stubbornness strangely gullible and open to conspiracies, quacks, and snake oil sales pitches. Wisdom calls for caution, not stubbornness. The bible’s book of Proverbs describes how some people are easily attracted to seductive promises that end badly, yet stubbornly resist the call of holy wisdom offering blessings of lasting value (Chapters 7 & 8). The book of Wisdom begins chapter 2 with the admonition that those who think fulfilling self interest means it’s ok to selfishly take advantage of whatever can be grabbed or stolen, will make nothing but bad life choices ending in their own destruction. Both are examples of stubbornly refusing to listen to sound counsel.
Bad habits need not dictate the future. As those in twelve step programs have experienced, even the most destructive habits can be replaced by more healthy and rewarding ways of life. The same is true for life long habits of making bad life choices, but it requires two first steps. The first is to acknowledge that one is in the habit of making bad life choices, and that doesn’t come easily. C.S. Lewis’ allegory of the grumbler becoming a grumble before ceasing to exist altogether, describes how fiercely one will hold onto a bad habit that has come to define who they are. The second is to step away from stubbornness and take a risk on a new way of life that offers new possibilities with good probabilities but no promises.
There is a third step that will mean everything for those willing to take it. “Let go and let God.”