I recently finished reading a book called Visions of Vocation where author Steven Garber dives deep into the implications our vocation has on the wholeness of our lives, not only our work like we often think, but also our relationships and responsibilities in the world.
As I read, I found myself continuing to take notes about decisions and the decision-making process, a subject that is becoming a pillar of my own vocation and one I’m endlessly fascinated by.
At the most basic level, making decisions in a better way starts with understanding that we don’t make decisions in a vacuum. There are too many factors at play that give color, texture, and nuance to every single decision we make, even the small ones. As much as we may think otherwise, it’s impossible to approach decisions apart from who we are because our choices are born out of our character.
What we decide is tied to the person we are and the person we’re becoming.
Toward the end of Visions of Vocation, Garber brings up Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables. He points out the life of the bishop in the novel. While the play and the movies that have come after the book only show the part of his life that intersects with Jean Valjean, the novel spends over a hundred pages to show the reader who the bishop was and the story that shaped his life in such a way that he saw the needs of the world and what was his to care for.
What we don’t know about the history of the bishop, we can infer from the choices he makes. First, he opens his door to a stranger. Then, he shares his table, his home, and his trust. And in the morning, when the bishop discovers his guest has stolen the silverware, he discerns his next right thing is to offer the candlesticks, too.
As Garber points out, “When you get to know the man, you understand why his instinct was to show mercy.”
I guess that’s what’s standing out to me today. Not necessarily the choice itself although his generosity is radical to the point of seeming foolish, but what stands out is the instinct that made the choice so obvious for the bishop.
Left to myself, my instincts don’t tend toward sharing and generosity. That has to be groomed and shaped. Just like being a writer or a basketball player or a pianist doesn’t happen overnight, neither does being kind, generous, trusting or trustworthy.
In the fake high school curriculum I often design in my head, I wish, in addition to algebra and history, we might also include Humanity 101: How to become a person whose instinct it is to show mercy to people who don’t deserve it.
That class I’m sure would be standing room only. I joke about it, in a way, but this is the important stuff in life.
Is it possible to move through a broken world as broken people without wanting to break everything in our path?
How can we learn to pay attention to the pain around us without letting the pain control us?
In Garber’s book, he asks a similar question: Can you know the world and still love it?
These are not simple questions and I don’t intend to resolve them in a short blog post. But when the answers aren’t simple, it may be even more important to continue to ask the questions.
When it comes to pivotal moments in my own life, what does my instinct lead me to do?
“At crucial moments of choice, most of the business of choosing is already over.” — Iris Murdoch
She said succinctly what I’ve been trying to say in 83 episodes — that the decision is rarely the point. The point is the person I’m becoming.
The point is how the decision-making process informs and shapes me in such a way that my instinctual choice is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The point is to understand that the habits in my life, the way I spend my time, the things I choose to focus on — these things are shaping me. And they will always impact my decisions for better or for worse.
We can’t live our lives distracted, angry, hurt, overwhelmed, afraid, and exhausted and then expect to somehow be able to make a thoughtful, wise, wholehearted decision about our job, our family, or our children’s future.
As Iris Murdoch said, At crucial moments of choice, most of the business of choosing is already over.
Again, I don’t have easy answers. But I do have simple encouragement. The person you are becoming matters.
The faith that’s being built within you as you move into an unknown future might seem invisible now, but as you continue to move into the world, your faith will be for you a foundation to lean on in times of difficulty.
The patience you’re cultivating with your two year old might seem endless and forgettable now, but it matters.
That late night conversation with your teenage daughter, the one that only seems to happen exactly four hours after your preferred bedtime but you stay up with her anyway? That matters.
The years you’ve been waiting for answers that seem to never, ever, ever come, every second of those years matter.
The choice to sit in silence with Jesus even though you don’t have words to pray because everything just feels so hard, that matters.
Making the cake, folding the laundry, tending the garden, driving the carpool, writing the proposal, asking the question, cleaning the toilet again. It all matters.
It’s important what job you take, which house you live in, which volunteer opportunities you say yes and no too. But these are secondary in comparison to the person you’re becoming.
The person you’re becoming will carry on beyond you, in the minds and hearts of the people you love and the people who love you.
May we be people whose instinct it is to move through the world as ones who live in the kingdom of God so that our choices always reflect the love of the Father, the power of the Son, and the compassion of the Holy Spirit as we continue to do our next right thing in love.
“As the poet, Bob Dylan once sang, ‘Everything is broken.’ And so we must not be romantics. But the story of sorrow is not the whole story of life either. There is also wonder and glory, joy and meaning, in the vocations that are ours.
There is good work to be done by every son of Adam and every daughter of Eve all over the face of the earth. There are flowers to be grown, songs to be sung, bread to be baked, justice to be done, mercy to be shown, beauty to be created, good stories to be told, fields to farm and children to educate. All day, every day, there are both wounds and wonders at the very heart of life, if we have eyes to see. And seeing is where vocation begins.”
Steven Garber, Visions of Vocation
This post is an adapted version of this week’s episode of The Next Right Thing: Episode 83 and you can listen to it right here. And if you want even more help with discernment and decision-making in your own life, grab a copy of The Next Right Thing book.