Paralysis and Resolution

I am facing the biggest decision of my life so far. It’s killing me. Part of the reason is that throughout my life I have generally been uncomfortable with the responsibility of making decisions. Often, when I am with friends, I let them choose things—what to do, what to eat, etc (friends, if this isn’t true, let me know—it just feels this way). This is because my friends make good choices and because I don’t want to impose my will on them. But just as importantly, I don’t often have my own will, in the sense of a will that is thought out and directed toward something. I am bad at getting what I want, because I am bad at articulating—even to myself—what I want. The single hardest thing for me to do at Burning Man last year was to decide what I wanted to do each day. Total freedom shows you your indecision. And so I would rather defer, because deference is easier than self-clarity.

A lot of this has to do with privilege—and I am extremely privileged. My parents are wonderful, we are well-off, they tolerate my idiosyncratic (for most people) interests. I am also in good health, am naturally talented at most things I try (with a few glaring exceptions), and am good-natured. People generally like me, or at least don’t tell me they don’t (but, if you do dislike me and want to share, there’s always the comments section!). I’ve never had to really fight for anything I’ve gotten. I’ve always played by the rules and won (a lot of that is luck). So I’ve never had to prove my mettle.

This allows me a certain dilettantish nature. What do I mean by an existence that is dilettantish? I mean one in which I sample the opportunities out there, never committing to one and becoming excellent at it. Instead, I look around at the world, try things, do pretty well, and sort of check each off the list for now, always to be there to come back to later if I want.

This applies to my hobbies. I do yoga. It’s incredible and I love it. But do I do it every day, with the intensity and focus that could actually lead to a radical self transformation of the kind that several of my friends, not to mention myriad spiritual individuals throughout history, have had? No.

I rock climb. It’s fun, but I only go maybe once a week so I will never climb something harder than a V3. I SCUBA dive, but I go maybe twice a year, enough to keep up my certification but not enough to, you know, become a diver. I cook, but I am not a chef. I’ll make decent scrambled eggs, above average coleslaw, and excellent pork shoulders, but I have never really approached cooking with the focused intensity that comes from wanting to be great at it. I play basketball every other week and soccer every other week. I dabble.

What about my studies? I study anything, and I love it all. My best papers range from fifth century trade and Seneca’s philosophy to early Christian martyrdom. None are publishable, and none truly engage with the full literature. They’re dilettantish efforts—which is not to say that they’re bad. They just aren’t the result of enough work to ever be the best. I should have read the whole Bible by now, and memorized the Roman emperors, and done a million other things that just take time but are necessary if one wants to progress past a certain point.

How does this come from or play into my lack of decision-making skills? I’ve never really had to make hard choices, opportunity-cost wise. I’ve never pursied any one thing to the point that I must say no to others.

Now I am going to have to learn to say no. In this space I once wrote that I was entering a phase when I would be rejected by a lot of graduate programs—maybe even all of the ones that I planed to apply to. The essay was a meditation on failure. I have been fortunate in that I was not rejected by all of them. This was frankly a surprise, albeit a pleasant one. Now, however, I have to face the paralyzing decision of where to spend the next 5-7 years of my life. I have to decide what type of scholar I am going to be, who I am going to work with, what city I may meet my future wife, and everything else that will result from this monumental decision. And I can’t make decisions.

I have pages and pages of notes about which schools offer what. I have talked with mentors, many of whom I’m sure feel like there is nothing more that they can say, and I have agonized more than I ever thought possible. But the decision still looms, and in the καιρῷ, the moment that the choice must be made, I will be the only one who can make it. And that, I think, will be salutary, because I need to exercise some of my will upon the world, to live with the possibility of having made a mistake knowing that in the end it was my mistake to make. Because right now, I am stuck.

About six months ago, I wrote myself a letter. At one point I wrote, “I don’t know what I want. Comfort? I have it, and I’m not happy. Ease? I have it. What I want I think is purpose. What I want is fire. What I want is to either believe in something greater than myself (sublimation) or I want to believe in myself as something greater (transcendence).”

I no longer think this is right. I think that now I want neither to subsume nor transcend myself. I want to be myself and to be comfortable being myself and being an actor in the world. I want to make things happen.

A year ago, I wrote another letter to myself. In it, I critiqued of the hedonistic materialism of our culture. But I added the following, as a postscript:

 “And yet I write all of this as someone who is perpetually outside, because I am so much inside my own head. I don’t know what normal people do in situations, I am too critical of the world and of myself.  It’s not negative criticism, it’s the criticism of the outsider, who sees the world for what he thinks it is, not for how he can be a part of it. I love the world that I live in but I don’t see it. I see myself, I see my own decisions, I see every possibility that could have been but I never just act and see what could be.

“Tonight, when I was out, I saw a lot of sad and miserable people who do not have [the] communication skills to get what they want. I was one of those people. I am one of those people. I don’t know what to do about it. Late at night when I’m lying in my bed alone I come up with resolutions, things I’m going to say, people I’m going to be honest with. I never do any of it.  It all exists in the same sort of fantasy world for me that the rest of the world exists in. I don’t even know how to keep track of my own thoughts, they pile up so quickly, until all that I can do is think to write them down and try to see the nuances that there once were before the cold hard black and white of the page stripped them of their subtlety. 

“23 was probably the best year of my life so far.  What can I do to make 24 better? I mean it looks like it will be a lot of fun, but right now it’s just sort of going. I need to change some shit up. I don’t know what, but it’s the radical freedom we all have (and that I keep writing around because it is too hard to confront and write about).”

24 ended up not being as good as 23. 25, though, has been great. But 25 also needs to be the year in which I have a breakthrough about the problems I keep writing to myself about, the year that I come to terms with the radical freedom we are heirs to in this post modern age. So why write this, as a public post, my first in months, rather than as just another letter to myself? To make this public so that I can see it as it exists in the world rather than within my head, or that extension of my head, the computer screen.

I need to free myself from constantly being in my head so that I can act in the world. And the first big act I will do will be to decide where I will go to school. In the grand scheme of things, not as big as other decisions people have had to make. It’s not invading Persia or picking up and moving to America. But for me, it is my decision to make.

© Henry Gruber 2013