In a parody of speeches to graduating seniors, Woody Allen described a defining choice that some say faces us today. “More than at any other time in history,” he wrote, “mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”1
We can laugh at Woody Allen’s satire. Others have described a more serious crossroads. In 1845, to oppose the U.S. war with Mexico, James Russell Lowell penned words that were adapted for a familiar hymn: “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, / In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side; / Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight, / Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right / And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.”2
There are defining choices in a nation’s history that must be made and, once made, cannot be unmade; they don’t come again – momentous choices that never seem momentous until afterwards, sometimes long after they are made. “We see dimly in the Present,” Lowell wrote, “what is small and what is great.” Only looking back can we know how great the choice and opportunity was.
Defining choices of that kind also come to us personally, historic, life-changing choices: Will I walk away from this relationship, or will I commit to the struggle to grow deeper with it? Will I keep working toward my degree in finance, or will I spend a year working with AmeriCorps to alleviate social and economic hardship in our poorest neighborhoods?
Sometimes the defining choice is like the one Demetrius Johnson made Friday morning: Will I run out of this burning building to save myself, or will I rush back in to try to save others? After rescuing his fiancée and two of his children from their blazing Buffalo apartment, Johnson went back to save his three-year-old son. He found the child, put him in a closet, then collapsed. Firefighters saved the little boy but could not save Johnson. “My brother died a hero,” said Johnson’s brother, William. “He died doing everything he could do to rescue his family.”3 It was a defining choice for Demetrius Johnson.
Most of the time, however, the choices are smaller, and we’re seldom aware that they will define who we are. How will I choose to treat the person who takes my order for coffee? How will I respond when that driver cuts me off in traffic? Will I react with impatience to someone whose words hurt, or will I listen for the cry for help behind the harsh words? Sometimes a decision that seems small to me can make a big difference in who I am becoming; sometimes it can make a world of difference to someone else. The decision to offer a few words of concern can be like throwing a lifeline to someone who is drowning.
Johnson’s defining decision came in a moment. So do others, like those that come in a job loss or financial reversal, in a decision to get married or get a divorce, in the death of a loved one or a bad diagnosis from your doctor. Suddenly the world you’ve known collapses, and the life you’ve been living comes to a screeching halt. Doubt creeps in, and the old answers don’t work any longer.
Other defining decisions sneak up on us when we’re unaware. For most of the 1970s I went through a lot of jobs in search of the right vocation. I worked as a law clerk, a bill collector, a radio announcer and advertising salesman, an EMT for an ambulance company, a commercial printing estimator, and a surgical technician before finally becoming a book designer and production director in scholarly publishing. But only after making a conscious decision to search for God’s direction in my life did the right vocation find me. When I confronted my limits and surrendered myself into the hands of God, I realized my decision had already been made, I had already taken the fork in the road.
Already I’ve gone on too long, but maybe somewhere in here you’ve recalled one or more of your defining decisions. Every one of them, I think, is a moment of vulnerability. The choice can go either way and seldom if ever involves any guarantee of success. So what do you do?
The first thing I do is try to recognize that in the vulnerability that comes with every defining choice, there is the blessing of opportunity to let God be God. St. Paul found himself in such a place when he was “so utterly, unbearably crushed that [he] despaired of life itself,” like he “had received the sentence of death.” The lesson in that, he wrote, was to teach him – and all of us, I’d say – to “rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:8-9).
The success of our defining choices, if you want to call it success, is less in which option we choose than in relying on God no matter the option we choose. God is already leading us toward the role in life to which we are divinely called and for which we are divinely gifted. Learn to trust that leading even when you can’t identify it, and learn to surrender to it and let it have its way with you.
The second thing I do is pay attention to how I define the choice before me. It’s perhaps the most crucial first thing to do. And the crucial choice is almost never between the options before you. The choice is really between whether to live or die, not physically but spiritually. Which option makes you more fully present to true life, and which option brings others closer to true life.
In deciding what to do with your life, theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman had some good advice. “Don’t ask what the world needs,” he said. “Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” In whatever large or small decision you make, when you decide for what makes you most authentically alive, God can make truly wonderful things happen.