Monday, July 28, 2008

How to Live with a Big Decision

A while back, I wrote a post about the process of deciding. About how hard it can be simply to choose one path over another, and the paralysis we often suffer from in making that choice.

However, one of my readers posed an excellent follow-up question to that post. It follows:

It's one thing to actually MAKE a decision about something huge, but what about living WITH that decision? How do I live knowing i've broken my parents' hearts by telling them that they'll only get to see me once a year (they can't afford to travel over here)?

She describes the decision to stay in the U.S. even though she's from England, leading to the situation she describes above. How, then to live with the facts of your choice?

So, how do you live with a tough decision?

Whenever I face a difficult question like this one, I first ask myself what Joseph Campbell has said about it. Not because he was the smartest man to ever live or anything like that, but because he has looked at mythology as an instruction manual for living the most authentic, blissful and right-thinking/right-feeling life. He has taught me how desperately we need mythic structures in our lives, and how out of whack our lives are for the absence of a functioning mythology.

My first thoughts are these: Campbell talks about the danger of living in fear of the dragon whose scales are inscribed with the countless "thou shalts" that other people have for you. So, for instance: Thou shalt get a college degree. Thou shalt study this field. Thou shalt live in the suburbs. Thou shalt have 2.3 kids. But also, Thou shalt be easy to get along with. Thou shalt not cause controversy. Thou shalt obey the rules. Or, if you belong to a subculture, Thou shalt get a tattoo, because everyone else has, or whatever.

Do you see? The thou shalt is the command other people throw your way. We allow so many of these to control us and steer us off our right path that Campbell invokes the image of a conglomerated dragon ruling us with thou shalts.

His advice? We must slay the dragon and live according to what is right and proper for our own lives.

My feeling is that Campbell would say that if you have been true to yourself in your decision, if it the thing that is best for you or your children or the way you want to live--and by no one else's command--you will be able to accept, in time, the decision, even with all its sacrifices.

Of course, that doesn't mean others will, and that's where it gets tricky. Not everyone is capable of letting someone go, of allowing them to live their own lives. Sometimes they do this out of a misguided attachment, believing that they must have control over that person or else they will have nothing, and sometimes it's downright selfish.

Sometimes, it is because of deep grief for the end of something. Childhood. A full house. Fertility. Life. If the grief is based in normal feelings of loss, it will ease over time.

The bottom line is that you are the only one who can live your life. You can do your best to explain your decisions and soften their impact, but until another person can live your life for you, they cannot torture you for a decision you've made in good conscience. Which is precisely the reason you must not torture yourself.

From The Power of Myth:
Moyers: There is an old prayer that says, "Lord, teach us when to let go." All of us have to know that, don't we?

Campbell: That's the big problem of the parent. Being a parent is one of the most demanding careers I know. When I think what my father and mother gave up of themselves to launch their family--well, I really appreciate that.

My father was a businessman, and of course, he would have been very happy to have his son go into business with him and take it on. In fact, I did go into business with Dad for a couple of months, and then I thought, "Geez, I can't do this." And he let me go. There is that testing time in your life when you have got to test yourself out to your own flight.

Moyers: Myths used to help us know when to let go.

Campbell: Myths formulate things for you. They say, for example, that you have to become an adult at a particular age...You have to have a feeling for where you are. You've got only one life to live, and you don't have to live it for six people. Pay attention to it.


erzsebet said...

I've just finished reading The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm. This is a book that examines the biographies of Sylvia Plath and the idea of 'biography' itself, most of which bears no relation to the topic of your post. There was one quote that stuck in my mind, and it seems to be relevant to the idea that the big decisions, the ones you make for yourself, are going to be the ones that displease or hurt someone - the thous do not like to be slain!

Malcolm writes, "[Plath] was, of course, encountering the 'not nice' part of herself, the 'true self' of Ariel, the self that was not afraid to rip up whole bushes, because this is what it is the business of the artist to do. Art is theft, art is armed robbery, art is not pleasing your mother."

How to live with this? I suspect a great many never discover that answer, hence the incidence of suicide, alcoholism, and recklessness. Myths or religion might have answers, but what about those people raised in a mythless culture replete with empty religious posturing? Where should they turn? Can an individual "use" a myth effectively, if it is not in alignment with the prevailing society? And yet... the fact remains that to live an authentic life, you must life for yourself not those "six other people" Campbell posits.

Excellent question - thanks for brining it up out of the comments & to our attention.


Tiffany Hamburger said...

thanks for the quote--it's so true! Art is not pleasing your mother! :-)

You are dead on about our "mythless culture replete with empty religious posturing." That is precisely the problem, and Campbell identified it as such. Further, our myths are 2000 years irrelevant, and are so concerned about the historic moment, rather than spiritual significance, that of course people don't get "it."

The instruction, then, comes from extracting what is universal and transcendent from our myth or the myth of any culture, and taking what is timeless--the hero's journey, essentially--and applying that to our own lives.

Read "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" for a very in depth, very profound exploration of the structure and anatomy of myth. This book is what helped me come back from the brink of nihilism and find truth in love, beauty and the sacred, deathless part of each and every living thing.

The Bible is great as literature. As a myth it is only useful once the code is cracked. For me, I had to find Campbell to crack the code. Indeed, "Hero" is in many ways my sacred and spiritual Book.

erzsebet said...


I will put "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" on my list of must-reads.