Small choices shape our lives

Published 7:46 am Monday, May 15, 2023

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Sometimes when I’m at an intersection, and all the lights are red, I look at all the other cars waiting there with me and feel overwhelmed with gratitude. I’m in thankful awe at the fact that every single choice in my life, along with everybody else’s choices, have carried me to that moment. Four cars, four life stories, four people waiting to drive. All of us are products of a lifetime of small, innocent choices made with no regard for their consequences.

Had I decided to turn right instead of left at any other point of the day, I most likely would not have shared that red light moment of grateful awe. That’s what I mean by a lifetime of small, innocent choices. They shape every aspect of our lives. Sometimes they’re conscious choices. We decided to turn left instead of right. Other times, these little choices happen, and we are unaware of them as choices. For example, if I see my hat just before I walk out the door, I’m habitually going to put it on my head. It’s a choice, sure, but I don’t even notice it until the hat’s already covering my bald head.  It’s a choice masked by the force of habit.

Just as all of those tiny choices shape our lives, there are bigger, more profound choices we make. Here, I’m talking about ethics and morality. When we make conscious choices, there is a set of values behind these choices that inform what we do and how we do it. Sometimes, we’re aware of these values. For example, I choose to love my enemies because my identity as a Christian calls me to that kind of love. It’s hard, and I often fail, but I choose to try nevertheless. Other times, these values have taken such deep root that, like my automatic decision to put on my hat, we make them unaware of their immediate or long-term impact. How many times have you automatically avoided a beggar on the street and then given them very little thought after you’ve walked on by?

How often do you interrogate the values within you and the systems of morality you allow to shape your life? Don’t we all agree that the best dinner table conversations are debates about the most comprehensive code of ethics found in 19th-century German philosophy, right? Maybe that’s only at my house! (Not really) One doesn’t need a degree in moral philosophy, priestly ordination, or a hyper-awareness of the Dharma to make more thoughtful and intentional decisions about how to conduct one’s life. We tend to make things too complicated. An easy way to reflect on your choices is to ask: “Will this choice more likely bring more pain or health?” Or, to echo wisdom found within several religious traditions: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Maybe you’ll find yourself at a stoplight soon, overflowing with gratitude that you are alive at that very moment. But if not, that’s okay. What matters most is that you try to live your life with as much integrity as possible, caring for your fellow human beings, loving those around you, and endeavoring to make your little slice of the universe healthier and more life-giving than before. Live for more than yourself, and I promise you, you’ll love yourself even more too.

Chris Adams is the Rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Washingto