What I Want to Express About Decision-Making, but Can't

Where to begin?

What I Want to Express About Decision-Making, but Can't

How about with what my high school stats teacher wrote in my yearbook? That, "life is a journey of your soul, ride it out!" and how to this day this single sentence has held more true than all the other sentences that appeared in my high school yearbook as advice for a high school graduate.

I thought I was being clever; I asked each of my teachers to give me some advice for college or life in general before I left and to write it in my yearbook. They could write as much or as little as they wanted. Some teachers filled a whole page, others, a few sentences, ramblings, the general "feel-good study hard."

I wasn't necessarily going to take the advice, I just wanted to see what they would write, what their advice said about them, as people.

I got a good mix of advice, with one repetitive theme: "do what you want to do, not what someone else wants you to do." I laughed at the advice at the time, I thought it was selfish and also contrite; teaching high school students, while potentially rewarding, is not exactly a coveted job, it speaks to the unfulfilled dreams of those teachers giving this sort of advice, and I was young, so it was a given that I'd already be following this advice, there was no reality in which I wouldn't do what I wanted to do, I just had to find out what that was.

I couldn't imagine how difficult it potentially could be to "find your calling," but I did learn a thing or two about personal responsibility (while failing on all sorts of interpersonal responsibility). In hindsight, I believe I mistook the advice to mean to always do what you wanted, felt you wanted to do when really it was about expressing who you wanted to become within society. The advice wasn't about following your feelings, it was about following your vision of yourself.

But that was high school advice, and now is now. What advice do we continue to give people in different regions of life development stumbling through career choices, romantic relationships, and attempting to remain happy (or simply sane)? Erik Erikson presents a good model[1] of the stages of acculturation we all go through, the basic ethical conflicts that form the basis of our interactions in society, and models can help us foresee problems that will need resolutions before healthy decisions can be made. For example, to trust or not to trust (a person, idea, etc.) How does a person decide? It depends, and it's experience (and reflection) that allows us to choose a proper answer depending on the circumstance. You can't trust everyone, it's foolish, but you also can't be skeptical of everything under the sun: not all questions have a knowable answer, sometimes you just have to believe in a felt sense. There's also fidelity (stage 5), to commit or not to commit (to a person, job, cause, etc.)? The answer again: it depends. To whom or to what? How does a person decide what is worth committing to and what is not? How does a person define worth? A life with too many commitments is unfocused and a life without any commitments is hardly a life at all, more a wandering-about. While freedom (to uproot our commitments, responsibilities) is coveted, absolute freedom has its limitations: it can't teach a man to care.

And more problems with decision-making... misunderstandings? Like what does it mean to be a man (and how a boy will act differently depending on what he believes the answer to be)? And how can we trust (erikson, stage 1) anyone's answer to this question since no one is really impartial to the answer. The military believes a man fights for his country. A mother believes a man is the son who grows up to take care of her in old age. A father believes a man is the son who grows up to accomplish and become the parts of him he did not become or to follow in the footsteps of what he did become. A friend believes a man listens and offers good advice. A lover believes a man is whoever can make them happy and alive, sexually gratified (to say the least). A man himself does not even know what it means to be a man, whether it means getting a girlfriend or fulfilling his masculine responsibility to work on a mission of importance, but he longs for the model he can emulate. Instinctively perhaps, he wants to believe there is a true version of manliness he has yet to discover (in himself). To me it seems like everyone wants a man to be something different and not at all complementary. I imagine the same problems with the term "woman."

A woman never disgraces herself. A woman is always pleasant to be around, but not too pleasant, not giddy. A woman wears makeup. A woman swallows. A woman... A woman... A woman...

Girls, has there been any solution to the madness? The advent of feminism and women's rights in the workplace seems to signal progress, but I'm skeptical. I can understand a girl's desire to work and find fulfillment in those areas of work that have been commonly denied her throughout history. I can understand the desire to find passion in realms other than love when it is that particular realm that women have seem confined to for so long, but I wonder if the pursuit of passion in work necessarily requires the giving up of passion in intimacy. When did girls become so practical? All I seem to hear nowadays is how girls want to get married, but not have kids. Is the idea of family life (stage 6/7) so painful that it'd be better to sublimate it with work (stage 4/5)? How come the answer to having a family is so decisive and clear when it's a topic that we all know so little about? The same for boys; how come our definitions of manhood are so decisive (though varying) when we know so little?

Maturity for both sexes does not develop over time; it develops with work, which takes time. "Age is just a number," yes. But it is a number that tells us how far or behind we are in our cultural development. The timing is important because we only have, based on our education pathways, so much time before we are confronted with important, irreversible decisions. You really only have so much time to pick a career, lover, and personality, and it's based on those three (as well as your surface appearance) that people will judge you by. Society sees 30 to be about the age when it should be mostly figured out. Until then there's a lot of growing that needs to happen. Erikson's model is good, but not enough.

For people who fall behind in acculturation (learning social skills, "common sense", cultural norms, etc.), we don't have a strong culture of help. We have ostracization and shunning or we leave it to the parents, but who's there to help the parents parent?

It feels like no one's fault. We all know too little, the odds of success are stacked against us, and it's an unfortunate reality that one group's happiness (and successful acculturation) can come at the expense of another group's happiness.

But it's this reality that informs ethics. A good person, simply put, makes other people happy (or at peace). A bad person, makes other people unhappy (or in unrest). We are all good and bad, to and for different people and at different times. But it's easier to believe in a single version of ourselves and other people: good or bad, heroes and villains, to be welcomed or avoided.

We often fail to see how what will make us happy will oftentimes make someone else unhappy. When our awareness of this increases, tension in decisions involving friends, family, and lovers also increases until a suitable resolution is found. Oftentimes our best resolutions are withdrawals if not in actuality (physically, mentally, emotionally), then in fantasy (to have a false connection to someone). Dreams that never come to fruition are the most pleasurable because they are safe from the undefined nature of reality, but readily build anticipation akin to a dog salivating over a meal that's yet to be had.

Life is uncertain, an ever-dynamic unfolding.

Certainties and safeties don't really exist, they are manufactured.

Is it foolish to say that life is fun because we don't know what will happen? Aren't the most rewarding victories also the most uncertain? Of course, losing would cause us pain, but aren't some pains worth the potential for joy (pregnancy as an example)? Or is it rather foolish to think of life in terms of win-lose? Zero-sum, rather than a mutually beneficial symbiosis: win-win?

From Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli:

"A hand reached into the picture and grabbed the mike from Ebersole. Becca Rinaldi's angry face appeared on Camera Two. "Why do you cheer for the other team?"

Stargirl seemed to be thinking it over. "I guess because I'm a cheerleader."

"You're not just a cheerleader, you dumb cluck"-Becca Rinaldi was snarling into the mike-"you're supposed to be our cheerleader. A Mica cheerleader."

I glanced at Mr. Robineau. He was turned away from the monitors. He was staring straight at the set through the control room window.

Stargirl was leaning forward, looking earnestly at Becca Rinaldi, her voice small as a little girl's. "When the other team scores a point and you see how happy it makes all their fans, doesn't it make you happy, too?"

Becca growled, "No."

"Doesn't it make you want to join in?"


"Don't you ever want the other team to be happy, too?"


Stargirl seemed genuinely surprised. "You don't always want to be the winner... do you?"

Becca scowled at her, jutted out her jaw. "Yes. Yes, I do. Yes. I always want to be the winner. That's what I do. I root for us to win. That's what we all do." She swept her arm around the set. "We root for Mica." She jabbed her finger at the stage. "Who do you root for?"

Stargirl hesitated. She smiled, she threw out her arms. "I root for everybody!""

Why does win-win feel like youthful idealism? It seems like the right thing to me, although it is more ambiguous and harder to define. What makes a situation win-win?

Maybe that's why win-lose is preferable to either win-win or lose-lose then. It's more certain, more defined. You lose and I win or I win and you lose. Wait.

But I'm telling you that life is undefined, it's a journey of the soul, of development and progress! and... that win-win only makes sense if we all have our own independent goals. And independent goals have this uncanny power to make us feel like individuals and therefore very alone.

But we're all alone, and winning and losing makes us feel less alone, so the cycle continues. But we are alone, until we're not, and it's joyful, all these uncertainties.

  1. Link: https://www.verywellmind.com/erik-eriksons-stages-of-psychosocial-development-2795740 ↩︎