October 16, 2015

Hard Choices

It is Friday, and once again, I am in my "office" on the third floor of the GCU library. I am blogging, sipping a fairly decent cup of coffee from Peet's Coffee and Tea, and thinking philosophically about making hard decisions. I have just come from my 7 am class where I overwhelmed my students with Ruth Chang's presentation on how to make hard choices in life.

Our wrap up today covered decision making in groups, and frankly, there wasn't much to cover that hadn't already been discussed, so while I was browsing the Internet last night, I ran across Chang's message. I have to admit that I wasn't expecting her TED Talk from May 2014 to have such an impact on my thinking process, but it did. I found her message interesting, inspiring, and instrumental to my thinking process, to my situation, to my struggles with making decisions. In fact, I think her short 15 minute TED Talk resonated with me so strongly because I am in the midst of one of the most difficult semesters of my life, and I am overwhelmed by the circumstances of my life. In short, in this season of life, I am constantly faced with making hard choices, difficult choices, and the process of analyzing the details, choosing a way to go has confused me, confounded me, and at times, caused me to sink into a fairly deep depression. Thus, this talk was "just" what I needed to hear, even though the content, the philosophy behind it, took time for me to really process, to really grasp, and to really come to terms with it, and with my own life and choice situation. It is no secret that I am stressed right now, and that I cannot handle much more stress. Yet, this one thing, this one decision -- on whether I have chosen the "right or best" career path -- has caused me so much angst, so much pain, and so much struggle. Today as I watched this TED Talk and processed the details of my life, I think I can say that I learned Chang's lesson -- that hard choices are not good or bad -- but rather they are on par with one another. They "live," as she says, "in the same neighborhood." Let me explain...

How do you make a decision? What process do you use to make decisions?

For many of us, myself included, decision making is a hand-wringing, excruciating process. I do not like to make decisions, even though I am fairly adept at making them. I prefer to allow decisions to be made for me, as it is easier for me, but over the course of my life, specifically  my married life, I have found that this approach is really the lazy way, the "decision by default" way, and in truth, is a less satisfying method than tackling the decision head-on.

According to Ruth Chang, a noted Philosopher, the lazy person makes hard choices without thinking about them. In most cases, the person approaches the decision out of fear, the need for achievement, the approval of others or some other motivation that is "reason based." Chang's basis her thesis on the 18th century model of empiricism that grew out of the Enlightenment, where rational thought and scientific reasoning triumphed over the premodern acceptance of the necessity of faith.

According to Chang, the Enlightenment ideals that elevated reasoning above faith, placed a stronger emphasis on evidence-based inquiry, reasons that now are tied to quantifiable outcomes. As a result, when we compare items that can be measured, we find our decision making process easy. But, when we compare things of value, things that cannot be measured, then we struggle to justify our actions. Chang gives a good example to illustrate this point when she describes how we often make decisions as if we were judging between two things that may or may not have equal measurements. She says that when judging the weight of two suitcases to determine which one is heavier, the possible answers are three: heavier, lighter or equal to. This determination is fine if our goal is to determine which suitcase to take on a trip -- the lighter one is better. However, when confronted with a decision that has a value component, we run into problems with this type of logical approach.

The problem, Chang states, is that we use this same method when we make values-based judgments. We attempt to numerically connect the value of something when there is no value that exists. Chang illustrates her point by using an example of choosing between careers or jobs. She says that whether we choose a job in the city or country will be based on many factors, none of which may be "better or best." The options are alternatives -- neither pro/con -- because they each have pros and cons. So, she asks, how do we make a hard choice?

I found Chang's TED Talk illuminating because it represents to me a fundamental problem that I have struggled with personally over the past three-four years since I have been on my own as a single woman. You see, prior to becoming single, I only made easy decisions, decisions that had a simple answer (yes/no, either/or). As my son likes to say, I dealt with 1's and 0's (in tech speak, on/off, black/white, programming language). When it came to hard choices, however, I deferred to my husband, and I allowed his decisions to rule our family. I did so because I believed this was the way husbands and wives made decisions. He was the head of our household, and in Biblical terms, I believed that it was his job to make these types of decisions (such as where to live, the type of work he would do, the level or measure of provision he would provide). I took over the decisions that were routine, every day things like what we would eat for dinner, whether we would go to my Mom's for a meal or stay at home, etc.

I felt that leaving these important decisions to my husband was the right thing to do, after all, he was the "man of the household" and God had appointed him as head over me and our son. The problem was, of course, that I negated my role in decision making for the family by not bringing my skills to the table, so to speak. I am an expert when it comes to analyzing problems and offering solutions to them. I have always been analytical, logical, and well-ordered. I am good at solving puzzles and problems, and I take delight in do this for my family or anyone really who needs some help. My ex-husband struggled with decision making, mostly because his Mom made decisions for him. He relied on her for everything, and the only choices he made were in rebellion against his parents authority. Thus, in our family, his choices were often made by default -- laziness or fear or both -- were his primary motivation. Furthermore, his logic skill was lacking so often he didn't even bother to analyze the pros or cons or even consider consequences. He simply took shots in the dark, knowing that if he failed, his parents would bail him out. Thus, our life was filled with stress and strife simply because he couldn't or was unwilling to make hard choices for our family.

Once I was free from his authority, I began to make decisions for myself. I started small, and thank goodness, I did have some good support from my parents. I made decisions that impacted my life and that of my son, but the consequences were minor. For example, I chose to remain in our home for 18 months even though our marriage was not going to be restored. It was a better choice for us in the long run, and while the struggle we had to remain in the home caused emotional problems, the physical comfort of being in our home outweighed any discomfort at being homeless.

The Lord guided my decisions, and for the most part, the decisions I made were good ones. In my job effort, the Lord provided great help to me, and over the course of time, I was able to make a good life for us. I earned good income, was able to leverage credit, and generally, I was in a better position to make choices that were less consequential and more comfort based. However, as I approached my doctoral study, something happened to me. I panicked due to the workload at my job, and I started to fear the possible outcomes of the decision I had made to work as an analyst at CVS Health and then at Nursewise. I turned to teaching, an option for me, and I have worked as teacher since. Yet, in that decision, I have struggled with doubts, fears, and with the nagging sensation that I made the wrong choice for my life. See here -- wrong only in the sense that it was an alternative choice -- but not wrong in that it was bad, rather that it was not a good fit for my skills, abilities, and innate desires. Teaching for me was an alternative choice. I have rationalized it, justified it, but for the most part, have never been satisfied that I made the "right or best" choice.

Struggling to Understand Choices

Thus, because choosing a career was one of the hardest choices I have ever had to make, I have spent countless hours analyzing my decision, trying to come to terms with it, and to accept that the choice I made was a good one. I have spent days, literally, sitting here blogging, just to come up with reasons to support my choice. Chang says that this is what we do when we make a values-based decision. There are no "logical reasons" based on empirical evidence so we must make up reasons that justify our choice. The rub in making values-based decisions is that there is no clear favorite, no clear winner, no 9-out-of-10 on a scale of 1-to-10 to decide the outcome. No, there are only reasons that support the choice, and those reasons are not quantifiable.

As I have analyzed the process of making a hard choice such as choosing a career, this is the rationale that has supported my choice.

Pros of working in higher education and teaching college:
  • Flexible schedule to accommodate my doctoral workload
  • Comfortable environment on a college campus
  • Alignment with my educational goals
  • Respect from colleagues due to my goal attainment
  • Career respect in title (Professor)
  • Achievement of a long-held desire to be a professor
The cons of this profession are similarly situated:
  • Weaker skills based on aspects of my less developed personality
  • Physical disability due to my structural issues (spine and back alignment)
  • No direct control over outcomes
  • Tension with public speaking (fear of it)
  • Lack of pay and benefits
  • Uncertain job prospects due to the high volume of qualified teachers in the job market
So for me, part of this hard choice is the fact that there are strong pros and cons for this job. If I were tasked with evaluating these characteristics now, my first approach would be to compare them like you would fruit. I might use criteria to evaluate the quality of each item. Then I might rank or order them based on preference, I might assign an arbitrary numerical value to each, and classify them based on their importance. In the end, I might sum up my analysis by see which side of the equation makes more sense, has more "value" or is numerically the stronger candidate for choice. I would also seek advice, counsel, and do my research -- reading mostly -- to determine extra data that could influence the decision, and then I would also be in prayer over the decision (from beginning to end) to ascertain if the two choices were viable options and approved courses of action from the Lord (not better, but just alternatives). In the end, I would have to choose, and I would choose based on the valuation each had. If they were truly equal, I would defer to what I believed was the Lord's will for my life, and accept the choice knowing that the option has merit simply because it doesn't conflict with the Lord's will, but it falls under it.

In my career choice, teaching or analysis, I found that both jobs were on par in many ways. Chang uses this statement of "on par" to emphasis that both options are equal in the sense that they share similar characteristics (they are viable options for work, but different "kinds" of work). I think part of why I struggle with teaching is that the positives do not always outweigh the negatives. I am blessed with a flexible schedule, for sure, and I am comfortable in the environment. I am finally relieved to be working in a job that accepts my education, and actually supports my efforts for advanced study. I enjoy the title of instructor, even though I am part-time contract only. This is all good. I am happy in this choice for these reasons; however, I am not content. I have tried to justify my reasons and be content in them, and I have failed to do so. I am not content because teaching wears me out physically and mentally. I am beat up, worn out, and I struggle to make ends meet. I work harder in this job then I ever did as an analyst, and I make less money now then before. What's more, I have no benefits, and while I am thankful that the Lord has provided care for me, I am without proper medical, dental and vision insurance. My debt burden is building, and I am constantly worried about my ability to pay off my credit cards as well as my upcoming student loans. This makes my decision problematic. But, what is at core, and is probably all the more difficult for me, is the fact that I do not have complete satisfaction in this job. I like it, for sure, parts of it and the fact that I do get to mentor students. However, overall, I am not satisfied in the job itself, and I wonder if I ever will be satisfied in the work -- the kind of work.

Chang talked about how she made a decision, a good logical decision, to become a lawyer. She was smart, for certain, and she got into Harvard Law School. But after spending time in a career as a lawyer, she decided that she wasn't "for law," but rather she was "for philosophy." She talks about agency (which is the will) and how we must be "for something" in order to create reasons to support our decision-making ability. Our reasons in values-based decisions come from someplace inside of us, and should represent the "person we think we are" or the person we hope to be. 

In my view, I feel that since I became a teacher, I have struggled with my identity. I do not see myself as a teacher. I can do teaching well. I am a good teacher, but this is not how I see myself at all. No, I see myself as a researcher, a data analyst, or a logician. I love my PhD program, and I enjoy the philosophy, the logic, and the theory. But, I am not a teacher. Or at the least, I have not wanted to see myself as a teacher.

In Chang's worldview, my reasons for getting a PhD, well even a Masters degree, may or may not have been empirical. I made up reasons that sounded empirical for sure. I said, "I can always teach," knowing full well that the real reason I wanted to get my Masters degree was to prove to myself that I could do it. Now that I have "done it," I am feeling the emptiness with a choice that was based purely on selfish motivation. I chose to pursue a career out of selfish ambition or pride. In truth, this is not really the case, but I would be disingenuous if I didn't accept some of the motivation as stemming from my ego.

In rationalizing my choice, once the truth settled in that my primary motivation was to prove to myself and others that I could do this level of work, I had to figure out another set of reasons to support my hard choice. This has been my sticking point, the place where my processor of a brain has simply remained stuck. Up until now, I have been stuck in a logic loop, and I have not been able to  get pass this point in the program.

I think the realization that I am a teacher has finally sunk into my brain. Yes, Chang says that once you make a hard choice, you must come to the conclusion that you are either "for it" or "against it." For so many years, I didn't take a position because I didn't make the decision -- the choice was made by someone else -- and as a result I never had to be for or against, I could simply take a middle road. But in making my own hard choices, I have to choose, I have to go one way or another, I have to be for or against the thing I have chosen. I have struggled with taking on this "hat" because to do so would mean that I have accepted my hard choice, I have accepted the path, the potential outcome, and the purpose or reasons for why I determined this way or that way.

So today, after all the rationalizing, analyzing, and hand wringing, I can say that I have made my hard choice. I made the decision to go into teaching without any foreknowledge of what would come from it. I hoped it would be a good choice, I hoped it would prove a worthy endeavor, and I hoped I would find satisfaction in the work, the type of work. I now must put on the hat and accept the role (the identity) that goes along with this hard choice. I must say, as Chang so clearly illustrated, that "I am for teaching." Yes, I am a teacher. I am a philosopher, a rhetorician, a logician, and a whole host of other designators, but I am also a teacher.

Making Sense Now

As I try to put all this into focus, to draw some conclusion, some understanding from it, I realize that in making difficult choices, there often isn't a right or wrong way to go. I have prayed over this for many years now, asked the Lord for His help, because in truth, in my black and white world, I want there to be ONE RIGHT WAY. This is my desire -- to know that if I turn right -- then I will be heading in the direction I need to go. I want everything to be a one-way street from start to finish. In this way, I will never deviate from the Lord's will, I will never go astray, off the mark, or find myself lost. Yes, this is my heart's desire, to follow after the Lord, neither looking to the left or the right, but only with my eyes firmly fixed on Him and Him along.

It has been a very long and hard road for me, this path of understanding change and of making hard choices. I know that to some folks, they might say "What's the big deal? I don't see why this is so hard for you?" I can't really explain why I have struggled so much with making decisions like this, but perhaps, it is simply because for so many years I allowed others to choose for me. I thought this was the best way to go, to let those in authority over me take the reigns and make decisions for my life. I was never happy or satisfied with those outcomes, and while I did try to make changes, every change I suggested was met with rejected. In the end, I gave in and accepted my life as dictated by others.

However, when I found myself single, and I do say it that way, I quickly learned that I was responsible for every decision I made. No matter how small the choice -- from choosing what to purchase at the grocery store to buying a car -- fell under intense scrutiny, not only from family, but from within, from my own mind. Was I making a wise choice, was it the "right choice, the best choice?" I constantly questioned my decision making process, my choices, my motivation for my choices. In some ways, the analysis of choice consumed me. I wrote out my frustrations on this blog, cried them out to the Lord, confessed them to friends, but in the end, I had to struggle through the process of learning how to make choices, small and large, easy and difficult. Hard choices has been a life lessons for me, and I have learned the value and the pain in making the most difficult type of choice -- the choice that has no quantifiable number -- because it is a value-based choice. Neither right nor wrong, just different. As my son would say, my INJT brain has been stuck in a logic loop, but finally decided, not like the computer in War Games ("The only choice is not to play the game"), but rather, the only choice is to choose one way to go and to trust the outcome to the Lord.

I have made my choice, finally, and I have finished the process of analysis. I have drawn my conclusion, and I can finally say, I am done or better yet, it is done. It is done. Selah! Praise be to God, it is done.

Dear Lord,

I have finally come to understand that this life lesson has been instrumental in helping me see how hard choices often contain value judgments and thus cannot be quantified. I have learned that my desires fueled by pride will never satisfy you. I must only seek to do work that is approved by you, and in doing so, I will know for sure that the work I do is pleasing to you. I know that teaching has been a great life lesson for me, and while I have found enjoyment in some of the process, the physical toll has been difficult for me to handle. Furthermore, the lack of provision has caused great stress in my life, and now that I am faced with caring for my parents, it is even more critical that I am able to financially provide for myself and my son. I realize that making this hard choice means that I must go one way or another. There is no right or wrong way, just options, or as Chang says, "alternatives." I must choose, and so I have chosen to remain where I am, to follow this path to its conclusion and to see where it takes me. I will go this way, "just to see" what is around the next corner, and in doing so, I will experience life as it is on this side of the coin. It was a hard choice, but I made it. I am settled, I am content, and I am free to live, to walk, and to enjoy the path that I am on. I ask now that I be released from this struggle, that I be able to rest in it and through it as I journey onward in my life toward my final destination. I thank you for the process, and no matter how difficult it was for me, I know now that there was purpose in the pain, and that pleasure, so often disguised, has seen its way through, and I can now enjoy the power that comes through the freedom of making choices. I ask all of this now in Jesus' Name, amen. Thy will be done. Selah!

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