I was thinking today about choices and their consequences. I had to make a choice recently – but I’ll talk about that in a moment.
In Drawing Out the Dragons: Meditations on Art, Destiny, and the Power of Choice, James Owen says the following:
“Everything we do in our lives has to do with the choices we’ve made, and those choices are cumulative. Every choice you make builds a foundation for every choice that follows. And the earlier you start realizing that you are always able to make choices, the earlier you’ll be able to build that foundation for everything you want to do with your life. And that’s important because in our lives, not many people realize that everything they do is a choice. That you get to choose the direction things go.
“Yes, our lives don’t always go the way we want them to. Bad things happen, obstacles arise, problems spring up to confound our well-laid plans. But how you deal with them is always in your power to do. It’s always in your power to choose your destiny. To choose how you respond to those things.”
I’ve gotten used to making choices in my life. At the end of his book, James provides three precepts of sorts, one of which is “Live deliberately. Decide: are you the kind of person things happen to, or the kind of person who makes things happen?” I’ve tried to be the sort of person who makes things happen, rather than the sort of person things happen to. What I find is that when I make things happen, things happen to me, but good things – things that move me closer to where I want to go.
The thing about choices is that after you make them, you have to take their consequences. So sometimes you have to think carefully about what you’re choosing. Sometimes you don’t have time to think carefully. And then, you just have to go on instinct. And if you’re the sort of person who is used to making choices, I think your instinct guides you. This is a story that Kendrick always reminds me of, when I’m talking about topics like this one. One day, we were driving into Harvard Square. We had not realized that it was the day of the Harvard-Yale game. The square was filled with students. As we were driving through, slowly and carefully, one of them came up to our car. He was waving a cell phone and shouting, “Run over my cell phone! Run over it!” And then he put the cell phone under the front tire of the car. Do I need to mention that he was very, very drunk? Without thinking, I got out of the car, picked up the cell phone, handed it back to him, told him that he was very, very drunk and that he needed to go home immediately and take care of himself. I realized, as I was saying it, that I was speaking in teacher voice. He was a student, and therefore he was my responsibility, one of my responsibilities. Students are, evidently, one of the responsibilities the universe has given me. I got back into the car and watched him stagger across the street into a vacant lot. Suddenly, a large man ran up to him and jumped on his back. Why? I have no idea. But he went down, and the man immediately turned and ran away. And he didn’t get up. There he was, lying on the gravel. So I got out of the car again, and this time Kendrick parked. When the student turned over – he was conscious, but barely – I saw that he had fallen on shards of glass. There was blood over half his face. So I called the police, then ran to a nearby convenience store, got paper napkins, and held them to his face until a policeman came by and the ambulance arrived. I don’t think I was thinking much during any of this. I was just going on instinct, and my instinct was that I was a teacher, and this was a student, and he was my responsibility until someone else came along who could take responsibility for him.
But the problem, as I’ve said, is that you have to take the consequences of your choices. The event I described above had no consequences for me: I don’t know what happened to that student. I hope he barely remembers what happened, and that he has no scars from it. Or that he’s learned from it, either way. The choice I made that had the most significant consequence was leaving the law for graduate school. Just before I left the law, I got a raise: to $100,000. The next year, I lived on a graduate student stipend of $10,000. I gave up the possibility of security, of a comfortable and lucrative life. (And I had no savings: all of my income from my three years practicing law, other than what I had needed to live, had gone to paying off my law school loans. So I could go to graduate school.) But because I made that decision, I have the head of H.P. Lovecraft sitting on my shelf, next to a sculpture of Elah Gal, from my story “Child-Empress of Mars.” As a lawyer, I could never have gone to Odyssey or Clarion, never have started the writing career I’m working on now. Never have won a World Fantasy Award.
It was the choice I had to make recently that started me thinking about all this. I had to make a choice quickly, on instinct. I don’t want to talk about it much. Suffice it to say that a friend asked me to make a choice for him. I refused. You can never, should never, make a choice for another person, especially not a choice that affects that person’s life in a fundamental way. You can make choices for people who are not capable of making choices for themselves: children, parents who can no longer choose because of age or a medical condition. Drunken students. But you cannot make choices, not those sorts of choices, for people who are free to chose for themselves. Who are responsible for making their own choices.
I made the right choice. I know that as surely as I know anything else. But the consequence was terrible, much worse than losing $90,000. It was losing a friend. By which I don’t mean what you probably think I mean: that he was angry, that he’s not speaking to me. No, I mean a real, genuine loss. As I said, I don’t want to talk about it much.
It made me wonder if one is punished for making what one knows are the right choices. But if you make choices, and if you are the sort of person who lives deliberately then you can’t avoid making choices, you have to take their consequences. That’s a sort of law of the universe, I think. And somewhere in the loss, the grief, there is a consolation: that if nothing else, you chose right.