Why Living With Your Decisions Can Be More Difficult Than You Imagine
Although my daughter was only fifteen years old when she died, she was a gifted writer and left a legacy of her work. Since the two of us shared a passion for writing it cemented the bond that we had together. I recall, about a month before she passed, her asking me for some suggestions for an essay that she wanted to write. I mentioned the tenuous nature of time and how our everyday decisions, as trivial as they may seem, have repercussions that reverberate throughout the universe. She did write a fictional account relating to this topic, and one month later she died as the result of many decisions that I made on the day of her passing.
Some people are comforted by the belief that it doesn’t matter what decisions are made, that everything happens the way it is supposed to, and we are powerless to change our fate. I am not one of those people.
The circumstances of my daughter’s death are complicated by the fact that my wife had a premonition the morning that my son and daughter were involved in a car accident. She knew that something devastating was going to happen that day, and I did take her seriously. That is until evening came, and I let my guard down as her vision faded from my awareness. My wife was still uneasy during dinner at a restaurant, and as we decided to leave, she told me to take our two kids home with me in one car, while she followed in the other after picking up some essentials. Not wanting her to be alone, I decided to send my son and daughter home in one car while I accompanied my wife. On the way home we came upon a horrific accident and our worst fears were realized. My daughter did not survive her injuries and my son was seriously injured.
Besides the devastation and horror of losing a child, I became obsessed with reviewing the events of that day and the multitude of decisions that I made. Why did I not take the warning more seriously? Why did I decide to meet at that restaurant? Why did I not leave the restaurant after receiving the check but instead decided to wait to say hello to the owner? Why did I let my son drive a sports car that he rarely was allowed to drive? Why did I not listen to my wife’s request to accompany the kids? If I left the restaurant five seconds earlier or later, my world would not have been blown apart. The list is endless. I wrote down thirty decisions made that day, all seemingly trivial, and went over them again and again in a masochistic dance of futility.
Some decisions that we make appear to have a direct and immediate result. Other times we send information into the universe that percolate through time. For example, Jane, who worked in the World Trade Center, decided that she needed a day off and did not go to work on 9/11. She made the decision and the immediate result manifested as she saved her own life. Of course, if Jane had decided to convince one of her co-workers to join her, her friend’s life also would have been saved, as well as the direction taken by her friend’s family and acquaintances. Every decision that her family members would have made would branch out exponentially in a never-ending trail of possibilities.
Or let’s say that I go out for lunch today. While sitting in the restaurant, the person at the next table hears me asking the waiter whether he recommended the fish stew or grilled halibut. The person then interjects the fact that he has had the fish stew many times and it is not to be missed. We then strike up a conversation. He finds out that we both like to play golf and invites me to play at his club, and I accept. On the arranged date I leave the house but then remember that I forgot my golf towel. I go back into the house to look for it and five minutes elapse. During those five minutes I make a mental note to check in with my dad when I get back. I then get into my car and head to the golf club. I decide to get gas so I would not have to stop later. While hanging up the nozzle I carelessly get my finger caught and develop a blister. I continue driving and narrowly escape a collision when a driver switched lanes suddenly without warning. I later arrive at my destination, a bit frazzled, but no big deal.
If I didn’t decide to go out for lunch that day, the universe plays out differently. As it turned out, the person who befriended me had Covid, which I unwittingly passed on to another friend who also caught it and is now on a ventilator. By the time I got home from golf I forgot to call my dad, and the next day found out that he was taken to the hospital and the staff was trying to reach me all that day. The painful blister I developed prevented me from gripping the club properly and an errant shot broke the window of a home bordering the course, narrowly missing the homeowner. I apologized to the homeowner and offered to pay for the damage, and it turned out that the homeowner needed assistance from me as his wife had just fallen while getting out of the tub and he could not lift her up.
The point is, our thoughts and decisions reverberate and can have consequences, good, bad, and neutral, that shift the direction of not only our lives, but people that we know and have never met.
I often reflect upon other decisions that were made within my family that determined the course of my life. About a year after I graduated from college, on a summer morning I decided to go to the beach that day. While at the beach, a place where thousands of people congregate, I happened to bump into one of my college roommates. While talking he asked me if I had any plans for that evening. When I replied that I did not, he told me that he was dating a girl and he was going to visit her that night. He then slipped into the conversation that his girlfriend had a sister and asked if I would like to tag along. It is not something that I would normally do, but his description of the sister was intriguing, and I agreed. I naturally assumed that my friend would advise his girlfriend of the situation and that she would inform her sister. Of course, he did not. The sister was upset at the surprise, did not particularly like what she saw, but reluctantly agreed to join us. As it turned out, the only reason she agreed was our destination, an amusement park that she really enjoyed. After several dates I grew on her, we fell in love, and we were married less than a year later. So, that thought of going to the beach that day changed the course of my life.
Going back only one generation there is a more striking example. Both of my wife’s parents were in concentration camps. I had a very close relationship with my in-laws, and although they never discussed the horrors of the camps with their three children, my mother-in-law opened to me and told me how she survived. She was sixteen years old in the camp and was herded into a warehouse building. It was known in the camp that once you were put in this building you would be gassed to death the following day. Early the next morning she noticed a door at the rear of the building. She approached the door, put her hand on the knob, and turned it. Of course, she fully expected it to be securely locked, but to her amazement the knob turned, and it became evident that the door would open. She then had a decision to make. If she opened the door and stepped outside, she would most certainly be instantly shot. However, she reasoned that she had nothing to lose, as this would be her last day on Earth.
She turned the knob all the way, pushed, and the door opened. It was very early in the morning, a time when all the prisoners were on their knees in a line, as guards took a head count. The line was about five feet in front of the door. She immediately shut the door behind her and tried to get down and squeeze in between two people. There was a reluctance among the prisoners to let her in, as they feared for their own lives. Luckily, a compassionate person motioned to her, scooted over a bit, and my mother-in-law joined the line. Her next fear was anticipating what would happen when the guards counted one more person in line than should have been there. Just as the guard was three people away from her, sirens started blaring as there was some sort of commotion elsewhere in the camp. Everyone in line were ordered back to their barracks, and she followed. Later that day every person in the warehouse building was exterminated. Two weeks later, the war was declared over, and allies rushed in liberate the survivors. So, the decision to turn a knob changed the lives of countless others. My wife would never have existed, my children would not have been born, and the direction of my life would be vastly different. Taking it one step further, the decisions made by me, my wife, and our children that affected tens of thousands of people would not have taken place.
It is easy to see how recognition of the fact that our thoughts have consequences might be troubling to some. Our view of the universe as being structured and linear is challenged by this knowledge. If our thoughts and decisions can result in good things, logic tells us that the opposite is also true. Many of us run our lives on automatic pilot, and we are not even aware of our involvement in spider like pathways that are always in a state of flux and branch out in constantly changing directions. The responsibility of making the right decision can be paralyzing as we hesitate to pull the trigger turning thought into action.
What can we really change in the way we make decisions? If we have the luxury of time, we might give more thought to evaluating the possible results of the actions we take. I am not referring to what time we decide to brush our teeth, but how a planned decision might affect others. Many experts will advise that when undecided we should always trust our gut. The theory is that our instinct is correct more often than it is not. Of course, some people have better instincts and intuitive abilities than others. Regarding the decisions that must be made instantly, we often rely on very quick calculations based upon our knowledge and past experiences, which sometimes can be confused with intuitive feelings.
The loss of my daughter, and now my wife, has resulting it me giving more thought to my interactions and decisions. How these decisions will truly affect others is impossible to know, and I certainly don’t let it frighten or keep me from doing things, but I find the combination of logical reasoning, intuitiveness, and empathy to be valuable tools in navigating my life.