I consider myself an expert in making bad decisions. It’s the kind of expertise that only comes with many years of practice. You have to make a conscious choice and stick with it, undaunted by the consequences, because it’s so easy to just float along making the right decisions. Everyone else is doing it, and they are hordes of people and books telling you how you can do it too. It simplifies things. But if you’re not careful, you might end up with a lovely wife, perfect children, a great job, a big house, and plenty of money. In that case, of course, you will be completely miserable.
I made it all the way to college only doing what was right (in a worldly sense). The parent in me now appreciates that good parents tend to make good decisions for their children. They are willing to bear the burden of the decision, and now I understand just how much stress goes into deciding where your kids should go to school, what kind of activities they should do, what kind of shows they can watch, what kind of car seat they need, what quality of stroller (or car) is necessary, how often they should take a bath, which foods are mandatory and which are voluntary, and what brand of milk is best. Because making a good decision (according to the standards of the day) requires a very specific course, whereas just about anything can be a bad decision. But all that stress we bear as parents eventually passes on to our children. Usually around the time of college.
On a nightly basis, college may be about making (or avoiding) bad decisions, but it’s ultimately about making one good decision. I went to college with a clear idea of what I wanted to do (computer science), but that lasted all of one semester. So with the big question looming, I knew I need to make a good decision. Not knowing what else to do, worried about wasting my time on an English or Pol-Sci or Journalism degree, I made the smart choice and got a degree in Business, which was a top program with many marketable skills, so getting a great job would be guaranteed. I’ve regretted it ever since. As graduation approached I realized I didn’t really know what to do, so I made an even better decision to get an even better career: law school! By the time I realized how miserable that would be, I had no prospects and no idea what to do. I took a fellowship with a church in DC to put off the decision for a year. I worked a part-time internship in finance there. The year was 2008, so I got to witness the epic market crash firsthand and watch it take my future career down with it.
Then I made one terrible decision that turned my whole life around. I got married. People in DC couldn’t believe it. You’re so young (I was 23)! How can you be sure? What about your career? My wife was entering a 3-year grad school program in Charleston, SC, so we moved down there with no job, few connections, two mouths (on the plus side, just one bed), and a pile of student debt. Before then, I imagined a high paying job in finance, or if that was no longer possible, maybe something at one of the many corporate headquarters or even politics or a non-profit if I chose. You can do anything in DC, one of the richest areas in the nation. Charleston, not so much. I took a temp job doing data entry at a software company just to pay the bills. I think I made $10 and hour.
The smart thing to do would have been to focus on my career, establish myself and settle my finances, mature into an actual adult, make sure the relationship would last (we’d already broken up twice), stay where I had friends and prospects. But nah.
It all worked out fine, though. Our first year of marriage was a disaster. I took a permanent job with the same company, hated it, and cried on the way home from work, but I couldn’t quit. We had no money and were making up the difference with student loans, basically waiting until she graduated and got a job so we could start living. Turns out my wife is as good at making bad decisions as I am, and we soon realized that Physical Therapy degrees cost a lot but PT jobs don’t pay very well. We moved back to Charlotte, a slightly better market for her, and I stayed with my same job (yay!) working from home. She might have worked full time a total of a year. I got laid off, found a great job with an insurance company, hated it, and decided to quit. That night, we found out we were pregnant.
I figured what we really needed at that moment was more student debt, so for my quarter life crisis I went back and corrected that good decision I made in college, starting work on an expensive, unmarketable master’s degree in creative writing. In the meantime, I went back to work at my original job (yay!), and my wife kept working, at least until she got put on full-time bed rest for the last several months. We had a beautiful and happy daughter, and once we got over my wife’s panic attacks, my depression, indecision about daycares and work schedules, we finally got to a point where we were (relatively) sane, stable, and on the way to breaking even, maybe saving a little. Which meant we could afford to have another kid, right? No way we could go through all of those problems again.
Our son’s life began with getting sucked out of the womb with a vacuum. Believe it or not, that’s an expensive procedure done by a trained specialist. And he had terrible reflux. Screamed all night, was sick all the time, went to the doctor every other day. The bills mounted with each new visit and treatment and medicine, and of course he was allergic to regular formula. He needed the kind that only the Germans can engineer (right next to the BMW factories, I guess), where every bottle costs a gallon of milk. It only took a year and a half for him to get better. We saved so much when he moved to Pea Milk, which is exactly what you think it is, that we bought a house.
Everything is all good now, though. Any day now we will be back in the black and saving for our retirement. I’m writing a novel and my wife quit her job to start her own business, so how could anything go wrong?
Life tends to frustrate all of our plans. That’s a good thing. Because life on this earth isn’t meant to be comfortable and secure. They may be temporary blessings, but they aren’t worthwhile goals. Yet every time I had to make a big decision about school, about work, about marriage, about children, about houses, I could feel their pull. Is this smart? Can I afford it? Will it make life easier or harder? Are you sure? The impulse behind this is essentially negative. It’s about fear and control. I fear the uncertainty of the future and therefore attempt to control it. That so much is beyond our knowledge and out of our control accounts for the overwhelming stress and anxiety we feel. It puts pressure on the decision.
And then what if we get all that we wanted? We have to keep it. We become dependent on a certain job, a certain income, a certain relationship, a certain neighborhood, a certain status, because we know them and can control them. It’s too risky to give up what we have for the sake of even greater things. Instead, we stagnate. Comfort atrophies our minds and security weakens our hearts. Suffering and poverty are food for the soul.
We fear poverty (I use the word very loosely, for few us will ever know true poverty) because we’ve never experienced it. We fear times of need because we’ve only known times of plenty. We don’t recognize the blessings of being poor. It teaches us to live without control or expectation and to depend on others, to appreciate generosity, to be content with what we are given, and to differentiate between what is and is not essential. There is incredible freedom in it. The freedom to change and improve and to trust without fear of failure and loss.
What’s missing from my story above is all the joy I’ve discovered that I never would have planned for myself. Marriages, children, cities, careers. If I’d waited until the perfect time, always made the smart choice, I might not have any of them. Each time I told myself that we was doing something a little crazy, that this might be the end of us, that we would never survive another setback. But, of course, we did, and our life and love, even in times of want and grief, was multiplied.
So free yourself from the need to make a good decision, to do what is right, to pick the one best course which will allow you to control your life. Become familiar with poverty and acquainted with suffering. Allow yourself to be uncomfortable. Welcome it. Make bad decisions. It won’t ruin your life, I promise. It will enrich it.