What’s more important than choosing right
SCENE 1: Her life is good. Her career is soaring. She’s got money in the bank.
Then one day she’s driving home from work when a semi-trailer pulls out in front of her.
The next thing she remembers, she’s lying in a hospital bed, unable to move anything except her head.
She has a choice to make: bitter victim, or joyful victor?
SCENE 2: His marriage is strong, his kids healthy and happy.
Then one night he finds himself alone in his office late at night. Everyone else in the house is asleep.
He turns on his computer and feels a temptation.
He has a choice to make: clean and confident, or dirty and guilty?
Life is full of pivotal choices upon which hinge our destiny. It is these crucial choices that define who we are and who we will become.
Or so we think.
But this perspective is deceiving and conceals a life-changing truth: Our choices do not define us. They reveal us.
As Robert McKee writes in his book, Story,
“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure — the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature…People are not what they appear to be. A hidden nature waits concealed behind a facade of traits. No matter what they say, no matter how they comport themselves, the only way we ever come to know characters in depth is through their choices under pressure.”
Our most important choices are made long before we ever face them. What matters most isn’t our choices, but our preparation preceding them. Our small, daily, habitual choices are more important than those that precede the sporadic, momentous choices.
Show me a woman who has filled her mind with empowering books and who has cultivated a positive mindset through her whole life, and I’ll know what she chooses as she’s lying paralyzed in that hospital bed.
Show me a man who has prayed fervently, studied God’s word earnestly, and followed spiritual promptings day after day over years and I’ll tell you what he chooses when no one else will ever know.
“Any idiot can face a crisis,” said Anton Chekhov. “It’s the day to day living that wears you out.”
In other words, sustained discipline is harder and more important than choices under pressure. And our day-to-day choices determine how we react in crises.
Long before George Washington faced Valley Forge, he had studied Seneca’s dialogues and laboriously copied, memorized, and practiced 110 “rules of civility.” Long before he won the Revolutionary War and had the clear opportunity to become a monarch, he had studied and strived to model the life of the Roman statesman Cincinnatus.
Katherine Kersten writes,
“What would Washington have accomplished if happiness, rather than integrity and service, had been his life goal? Instead of suffering with his men through the snows of Valley Forge, he might have followed the example of Benedict Arnold…What can we learn from Washington and his contemporaries about character-building? They teach us, most importantly, that ‘the soul can be schooled.’ Exercising reason and will, we can mold ourselves into beings far nobler than nature made us.”
Because he had “schooled his soul” diligently and consistently over years, Washington chose bravely and rightly when he faced crises.
And so must we if we are to choose rightly under pressure.
I often teach writing students that “As you read, so shall you write.” Likewise, as you prepare, so shall you choose.
What we feed our mind and soul today is revealed in our choices and actions tomorrow. What’s more important than choosing right in the moment is choosing to be good long before the moment ever comes.