I was struck yesterday with the thought that part of the reason I’m such a bad planner may have to do with my religious background. (I do tend to think that everything has to do with religion, both because of my background and because of graduate school, which tends to make you think that everything in the world has something to do with the très interéssant topic you happen to be studying. “Global warming? That reminds me of my research on…!”) I admire people who are decisive, who assess a situation, commit, and don’t look back. I don’t know if those people actually exist or not, but it looks like it from the outside. I have usually made decisions by waiting for options to limit themselves so my job is made easier. Of course, I don’t think that way at the time, but I always find some reason to delay. There was a time when I filled that space (or thought I should) with prayer.
I remember being both amused and a little freaked out by those Christians I knew who seemed to pray about everything. “Should I do the dishes right now, or mop the floor?” Then there are those who bring it up in conversation. I’ll admit, it’s a good way to put someone off if you don’t want to do something. “Uh, yeah, I’m gonna need to pray about that first.” Doesn’t work as well with your boss, but in Christian circles, it’s a conversation stopper. “Who am I to interfere with the voice of God?” the asker thinks. To most, the command to pray without ceasing is taken allegorically, but it does raise the question of where one should draw the line in terms of listening to God and making decisions on your own.
Since I no longer hear from God, I bear the weight of every decision I make and its consequences, anticipated and unanticipated. I never would have been able to predict how existentially different the normal process of decision making is with no divine safety system in place. As a Christian, I of course believed I was fully capable of making wrong decisions, but even if I did, it was comforting to know there was someone looking out for me. In my more self-assured moments (fairly rare for me), I could step out with confidence knowing I had prayed and made the right decision. Now there is no fallback. Heidegger calls this our anxiety at “being-in-the-world.” In other words, the simple fact of our having been born into this existence that we have little control over and faced with having to make our way, we get nervous, especially when we have to take an active role.
There are different ways, better or worse, to respond. We can confront decisions with the knowledge that we will bear their consequences, right or wrong, or we can construct a variety of systems that lessen some of the burden of our responsibility. This might be a religious system that says it doesn’t ultimately matter because this is not our real home, or that we will get a chance to correct ourselves in another life. It might be a legal or a social system that encourages us to blame our actions on society, or parents, etc. Any combination of these factors shape our choices and distribute the burden of our decisions. You will notice, for example, how we feel we deserve more individual credit for good decisions or circumstances, such as financial or social success, fame, etc. (People use God in this respect too. Just think of any awards ceremony or sports victory. The winners obviously had God on their side, and I guess no one else did.) Yet when bad circumstances or bad choices visit us, we tend dilute our accountability with other people, environmental factors, or…God. “Well, I guess God must not have wanted me to have…” or, “I guess God had other plans.” Does that really help in making decisions, or does it help you deal with the consequences of choices and the reality that you have little control over the things around you, and yet you are responsible for your choices?
So, my suggestion is that with the notion that there is a God who is interested in our individual lives and to a certain extent directs them (Proverbs 16:9), our sense of the significance of our daily decisions is skewed. We may overanalyze and never pull the trigger, so to speak, for fear of a catastrophic mistake; on the other hand, we may act before thinking because of some notion that God has our backs and sanctions our actions. Both of these can produce disastrous results. As for me, I am in the retraining process of how to most accurately measure the weight of my decisions in the world.