Even with its shores now out of sight the river keeps its form for a while, the fresh river waters clinging together amidst the endless span of the dark salty ocean, as if afraid to let go. But like a memory slowly fading, where the fresh meets the brine the edges of the old river lose their definition, become blurry and vague, until it has become impossible to tell where the river ends and the ocean begins. The more time passes, the more the remnants of the river dissolve, until the river lets go completely and with final abandon releases all hold of its waters and lets them reunite with the water they once came from. The circle complete, the ocean absorbs the new arrivals effortlessly, remaining undisturbed and endless, source and destination, eternal.
Waiting for the river, past the last barriers of dunes and estuaries, lies the ocean, its vastness masked by the gentle curve of the horizon and the hazy air in the distance. Longing for the sweetness of the river, the salty water calls out to it with a low continuous rumbling, as to a long-lost lover finally returning. The river’s water, its force and drive mostly spent by now, does not resist but lets itself be drawn into the ocean’s slow dance of tides coming and going. As if mesmerised by the ocean’s rhythm the water lets go of the safety of the river’s banks and dreamily floats away from the coast, to mingle with the cold, dark ocean water.
When we exercise our power of choice we turn from passive objects thrown about by the forces of the outside world into active agents shaping those forces as much as being shaped by them. Making deliberate choices can give us a sense of empowerment and control but it can also be daunting. In the complex, unpredictable and ever-shifting world we live in it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices we must make and the impossibility of getting all of them right.
It seems that the more aware we are and consciously consider every interaction we have with the world, the more our choices multiply. Even the simplest of things, like what to have for breakfast or when to go bed in the evening, could, if we’re not careful, be the source of endless deliberation and hesitation. From a rational perspective there are very few choices that have one clear best option. In most cases the number of variables involved quickly make a detailed comparison between the available choices impossible. Even if we could compare them one by one it’s more than likely that we would find that the pros and cons between options balance each other out, each option having a different mix of plusses and minuses, but no clear advantage to make them stand out as our preferred choice.
On the other hand, even when we are being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of our trivial choices, it can at the same time appear as if we have no real choice at all where the big issues of our lives are concerned. We can’t change the facts of our genes, our family and ancestry, our country of birth, the time we live in, the systems we have to conform to if we want to participate in society, the laws of man and nature, … so many outside factors seem to define and constrain us that it would be easy to conclude we only really have choices where they matter least. A growing awareness of our expectations and increasing clarity of our narratives can lead us into feeling lost between having too many small things to choose between and lacking the power to choose a different path than destiny seems to have prepared for us. We could become like prisoners on our way to our execution, unable to change the inevitable end but all the while worrying whether our choice of shoes was appropriate for the occasion.
Even if we manage to steer safely between the rock of powerlessness and the hard place of being overwhelmed by choice, and manage to find the choices that matter and are clear enough to make, we still face that heaviest of downsides of choice: the burden of responsibility. When we make deliberate choices we assume responsibility for their outcomes as well as their consequences, even when some of those consequences were unintended or unexpected. When, by choosing, we change something, however small, in the course of the world, that change is our doing, and we cannot protest our innocence in bringing it about. We made that choice; we have to live with the consequences. That burden of responsibility is not something to take lightly and can become a major obstacle on our path towards living our best possible lives and consciously traveling the path of our own design.
Caught between powerlessness and an inability to choose, and burdened by responsibility, we could wonder whether trying to live a conscious and deliberate life is really such a great idea. Maybe the simple souls that unthinkingly follow the rules and dictates of their destiny are better off than we are, in our endless struggles? Maybe it is better to let the big choices be made by others, making the little choices without much thinking, not having to feel responsible for any of it as we are simply too small to matter at all?
Maybe not. After all, choosing not to choose is just as much a choice we make. we can’t actually escape responsibility by sitting still and letting things happen. If bad things happen, things we could have prevented had we taken action, those bad things are (at least for a part) on us. Inaction does not save us from the burden of responsibility, nor does it prevent us from making the wrong choices, as inaction itself can be just such a wrong choice.
Let us, therefore, accept that making choices is part of the human condition. Let us also accept that we can never expect to make perfect choices. There is no place for perfection in a messy, imperfect world. Each and every choice is always at best an approximation of the ideal that lives in our imagination only. The art of making choices lies in making them as deliberate and considerate as we can, observe their outcomes and consequences, and learn from that: adjust our beliefs and assumptions based on what we cause and see caused as we walk our path, so our future choices will be progressively more in tune with the journey we are on.
To end this section on a positive note, here are 4 things to use when doubting our ability to choose:
When we are overwhelmed by the number of choices we have to make: rigorously prioritise them.If we could do only one thing at this moment, and nothing else, what would that be? By weighing each choice for the impact it has on our narrative and journey we can find the one that is most relevant right now and focus on that.
When we feel we have no choices in what really matters: broaden our perspective.When it seems that the major obstacles in our lives are beyond our power to change, we may simply be looking too closely at those obstacles. A wider perspective – which also means removing ourselves emotionally and cultivating an attitude of detachment – will help us find choices that matter rather than getting stuck trying to force issues where we actually have little or no choice.
When we know what we should do, but the prospect is too daunting, too big, too seemingly risky for us feel ready to make that choice: break it down into smaller steps.Remember that even the longest journeys start with one small step. Breaking down the big, daunting choice into smaller components and considering each sub-choice on its own merit may help to find a first step that both doable and desirable and sets us on our way.
When we’re not sure the choice we’re about to make is the right one: imagine its consequences.Though we will never get guarantees our choices are right, we can reduce our uncertainty by imagining how each choice would work out over time. We can create scenarios of the near future and sketch out the consequences of the choices we’re facing and evaluate the likelihood and desirability of those consequences in each scenario.
Majestic now as the water spreads out across wide stretches of the land it flows through, in an expanse too wide to see both sides of at the same time, the current seem to slow down as if realising that in fulfilling the goal of finding the lowest point it can get to it has also brought itself to the edge of its own demise. The end is inevitable, yet the water can’t stop now. There is too much momentum, too much energy still stored from the driven rush downwards. And so the water reluctantly continues on to meet the fate its own haste created.
Narratives give direction, intentionality and movement to our aspirations. A great narrative, with ourselves as the hero of a heroic quest, helps us achieve more, work harder, and enjoy much more what we encounter on the way. But, like with expectations, we must make sure our narratives are properly aligned with our preferred direction. While inspiring and exciting narratives can be enticing and energising, they can also be seductive and lead us away from our most fitting course.
Constructing the right narrative takes time and self-reflection. It takes discernment and a critical mind. In spite of what we are often being told, the world will not simply fall into step with our desires simply because we are thinking happy thoughts and indulge in wishful thinking. There will be obstacles to overcome and (hard) work to be done. Some things may be within our power to change, some can only be influenced indirectly, others may be completely beyond our reach. The best personal narratives are those that walk the knife’s edge between realistically doable and unrealistically desirable. They challenge us to push the envelope of what we think we’re capable of, without tearing the fabric of reality completely to become fantasies only.
As with unrealistic expectations, overly ambitious narratives can become a source of frustration when they continuously push us towards trying to achieve things beyond our power to achieve, or predict outcomes and improvements that fail to materialise. If we fail to use our power of judgment and discernment we may find ourselves trying to climb a Mount Everest without having the right equipment, skills or levels of practice, to end up discouraged and depressed for not actually making it to the top. Even worse, a strongly motivating but ungrounded narrative may get us to throw all caution to the wind and lead us to into potentially fatal endeavours we may not be able to recover from.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t dream big. On the contrary, only bold and audacious dreams can lift us out of the limiting perceptions of our current situation and compel us to rise above them. But between the dream and the execution there should be a time of reflection and consideration. In that time, we should hold our dream up in the light of reason and see where it may be push us beyond what we can even conceive of doing, are woefully inadequately prepared for, lack the means for, or that blatantly violate the laws of reality as we know it. The most important thing here is to use that time of reflection to see if and how the dream can be turned into doable (or at least plausibly doable) stages that we can see ourselves attempting with some chance of succeeding. There is no point in aiming for the stars if we cannot see where to start such a journey and imagine what the first achievable outcomes would look like. Even the longest journey starts with the first small step, and it is our responsibility to ourselves to make sure we are ready for the first step and have some idea where to go from there. If we can’t make those first steps at least somewhat concrete we will not only not get to those stars, we won’t even land on the moon. We are more likely to crash and burn, or nor even get started and run ourselves into the ground with misguided disappointment.
And then remember that the heroic quest is a journey of discovery: much of what we will encounter on that journey is unknown when we set off and we must expect to do much exploring and learning on the way. Part of that learning is that our pre-conceived notion about both the journey and the destination may significantly change on the way there. Like expectations, narratives need to be maintained and tuned, and – even more than expectations – subjected to a critical examination of alignment and usefulness. One thing we definitely don’t want is to get stubbornly stuck on the narrative we set out with, because we have become too attached to it.
Once they reach the lower slopes of the mountains and the valleys below, the waters calm down. The flowing streams deepen and widen into strong, fast flowing rivers, only occasionally thrown into turmoil and chaos where they run into rocky chasms and water-worn cataracts. These rivers are now as much shaping their environment as they are shaped by it. Where they flow through deserts, life teems at their edges; where they flow through ancients plains, they carve out deep shadowy canyons; and where they reach low lying lands they deposit rich, muddy, fertile sediments. But the water itself – though parts of it gets diverted, trapped, and absorbed during its journey – keeps flowing on, driven by gravity to find the lowest places it can get to.