Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Discipline of Making Choices

"Winter in the Wilderness"

It’s been raining in the desert. We are feeling the effects of the El Nino that meteorologists have been forecasting for some time now and I am learning an important spiritual lesson in this desert storm - the way people are responding to something as simple as a rainstorm has taught me a great deal about how we make choices in life and how our seemingly simple choices can have a very powerful effect.

While we can’t control the rain we sure can control the way we respond to it.

I went to the supermarket yesterday and stood in the produce section of the store listening to everybody talking about the weather (a rain-event is very unusual here so it was a “hot topic” of discussion). I remember one conversation in particular – an older woman was very upbeat about the unexpected rainfall, her face beaming and eyes glistening she told her friend:  it’s so cleansing and refreshing.”  A second or two later I listened to another conversation in which a fairly disgruntled man was glum and even angry because the rain had caused him to cancel his plans for the day.

It suddenly struck me how these two very different and seemingly insignificant responses would ripple out and have an effect on all sorts of lives that day. I noticed that the people around the woman who was celebrating the refreshing rain were smiling and even cheerful; whereas the people around that gloomy guy looked pretty glum themselves, obviously affected by the man’s grousing and grumbling.  

As I stood there in the produce section, I was sure that the cheerfulness wouldn’t be confined to the people in that store, nor would the gloom- it would all spread out everywhere and in some ways it would change the world.

We are, after all, an interconnected web of relationship, and so whatever we say or do not only affects our small circle but it inevitably resonates and reverberates far beyond our own individual selves. An act of kindness is infectious and so is a word of anger.

It is a great paradox to me that we can control very little if anything in our lives but we can influence almost everything.

We make choices every day. We choose what we eat and drink, we choose how well we take care of our bodies or we choose to neglect them. We choose to sit quietly and meditate or we choose to be so constantly busy that we have no time for reflection. We choose to forgive an injury or we choose to lash out in anger. We choose to reconcile or we choose to hold grudges.  We choose to walk in the rain and rejoice in its freshness or to curse it for its inconvenience.

In fact even when we choose not to make a choice we are making choices. When we decide to ignore that homeless guy asking for help on the sidewalk we have in fact made a choice.

Our choices have the power to enhance our humanity and they have the power to diminish it.

I remember reading an op-ed column a while back in the New York Times:

Everywhere there are tiny, seemingly inconsequential circumstances in life
that, if explored, provide great meaning –everyday chances to be generous and kind.
Spiritual and emotional growth happens in microscopic increments.

The big decisions we make turn out to have much less impact on life as a whole
than the myriad of small seemingly insignificant ones.

I find great wisdom in this observation. The spiritual journey is all about making decisions, it is the practice of a discipline of making good choices – little everyday seemingly insignificant choices that can, in fact, make the world a better place.

The philosopher and psychologist, William James, once said:

Act as if what you do makes a difference – it does.


  1. Thanks Paul. You know I used to really desire some important sounding job that made it very clear that I was doing something big and important to help other people. Partly ego driven, but also wanting to make a difference. But in my current job I started noticing all of my little interactions with people, a kind word, a listening ear, a smile and a joke, and it dawned on me that these small differences were already making a difference. They were enough. Your post illuminates this enormously. Thank you so much. xx

    1. Sheridan, I so appreciate (and really enjoy) your comments.

  2. Wonderful post Paul.

    I remembered a song from 'south pacific' "spread a little happiness as time goes by"