The modern world makes it increasingly difficult to tell what is a big choice and what is a small one.
Ever since I learned about the term butterfly effects – the small seemingly inconsequential decisions that add up to large, meaningful downstream effects – I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how little, momentous, choices are everywhere. Everything has gravity to it. There are some small choices you make that take your hand and lead you forward into your entire life. These are unexpected, rare, special moments.
Truthfully, life is just a tenuous combination of conscious and implicit choices. What you omit is as important as what you say. What you don’t choose is as important as what you do. Melissa Febos wrote in Body Work: I want to be awake for all my choices. But most of the time we make choices half-asleep, half-conscious. It’s so hard to be awake, to pay attention to all of it. The mind can’t bear too many decisions. That’s why it goes on autopilot so often: chooses the easiest route. The one with least conflict, least vulnerability, least risk.
Being awake is realizing you are making mini choices all the time, it’s whether you notice them or not.
Example: on the micro scale today I’m choosing between my phone lighting up in the corner, the books I’ve yet to read, focused work, deep rest. I choose to sit here for 3 hours and write today. To run through Golden Gate Park until my lungs start to burn. To feel the ache, the loosening, the euphoria. To see the world one shade greener. To observe how tender, benevolent it all feels when I look closely.
How you choose to approach the world shapes your entire experience living in it. Maybe that’s what we love about meditation — it shows us that what we pay attention to is a decision in itself.
Of course there are some selections that are clearly consequential. Where to live, who to commit to, how to see ourselves. Six months ago, I wrote about choosing to move to SF (at an earlier point I was debating moving to a different city for someone important in my life)
Hayao Miyazaki: To exist here, now, means to lose the possibility of being countless other potential selves. I think about this all the time: how the self I am now is different from all my other potential selves just by virtue of being physically here and not anywhere else. There are consequences to that decision, but again, choosing is the hardest part. After that, you learn to love it. As they say: “wherever you go, there you are." That quote is meant to come from Confucius but the actual Mandarin translation ends up being “wherever you go, go with all your heart." Either way you read it is pretty beautiful.
That post was about a medium-sized decision to move SF, but it was really about how I deeply believe in owning your decisions and moving with lightness (going with all your heart). To know you made a choice for yourself. Even if it means leaving an imagined self behind, even if it means grieving the ‘potential self’ in order to make room for the present one. No nostalgia, no expectation.
Writing that piece also cemented for me that the purest form of love is giving someone space to make their own decisions.
No godly intervention, no ‘well-intentioned’ directions, no shaming. Even if the choice is different from one you would have made. Even if it feels like a punch to the heart.
“My job is to observe people” Murakami wrote, “and not to judge them.” I think that’s the job of love too. Love is all about choice, I’ve realized. Because choice is about freedom. And when you restrict someone’s freedom, you also restrict their soul.
You see, there are infinite worlds in which different combinations of our choices lead to different outcomes. There are worlds in which you and I never meet. Worlds in which you mean everything to me. And too many choices in this lifetime to be able to act on them all.
I've realized the best I can do is try to stay awake: to see beauty in serendipity. To appreciate how the self continuously evolves through decisions. To choose things that make me feel bright, full, and clear. Each choice, big or small, reveals a little more of me to myself. I just have to pay attention.
Quotes of the week
A closed door is always secondary to the prayer you say in front of it. Go back to your prayer instead. Ask what’s in your prayer. What did you want from this closed door? What did you imagine behind it? — Heather Havrilesky
I am learning to see. I don’t know why it is, but everything enters me more deeply and doesn’t stop where it once used to — Rainer Maria Rilke
Things I consumed this week
A Short Story: A small price to pay for birdsong (thank you Alok Singh for this recommendation. If you like K.J Parker, reach out via his blog ) if anyone has read it we must discuss
I always used to despise you; all that knowledge, all that skill and technique, and no wings. You couldn’t soar, so you spent your life trying to invent a flying machine. I learned to fly by jumping off cliffs.
A Movie: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
A couple undergoes a medical procedure to have each other erased from their memories when their relationship ends badly. The movie shows how erasure means completely removing all the good moments with the bad. (I think I might even write a whole post on this, it was very thought-provoking)
An Essay: Lateral Thinking (Thanks Armi for this rec)
“Sometimes, the mechanism of the answer is something ludicrously complex, a thing that must be pieced out bit by bit. Other times, the solution requires retooling your perspective.”
A French Song: Aline
Thank you for writing this Nicole, it felt good.
Just the other day I was thinking of how much admiration I feel for people who are comfortable with themselves, for who realizes that life is too short to spend it looking for the reaffirmation of others.
I think it was Anne Lamott who wrote that "there is beauty in comfort". Being present —and doing it will all your mind and spirit— has to do with acceptance, and with acceptance comes comfort. There’s beauty in all those people who find serenity in the restraints of their own place, occupation, skin. Everyday they choose to see the glass half full and to live this life at its best —no matter which one of the gazillions possible ones it turned out to be.
lovely writing 💞i’m reading the midnight library right now and this reminds me a lot of it – it’s like a contemplation of possibility and choices and regrets in the form of a novel