So you don’t get your hopes up, I’m not writing about the old radio/TV game show, even though watching people make fools of themselves and feel good about it would be a good subject. OTOH, with Jerry, Maury and about a thousand Judge Wapner wannabes out there it wouldn’t be especially original…
No, I’m writing about consequences (and that’s the truth!). What I have to say is painfully obvious, but if you ask anyone I work with they’ll tell you that I excel at making the painfully obvious even more painful (and sometimes more obvious).
If you also ask them what I actually do when working, after some puzzled looks and head scratching you’ll hear something about planning. Ah, planning! Don’t you just love the sweet, sweet smell of it? Use facts, judgement, experience, counsel, intuition, WAGs (Wild Ass Guesses, for the uninitiated) and whatever else you have to set goals and then find a way to achieve them. Yum, yum, who doesn’t enjoy the rich, creamy taste of planning?
The thing is I’ve come to realize is that planning ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. If you understand The Nature of Things as I’ve come to understand them, you’ll realize that you can’t be a planner and remain sane. (I’ve clearly made my choice in this matter, a fact many of you will attest to…)
So what do I understand about The Nature of Things? Well… If I had a mathematical bent I’d say something like “life is non-linear”. And since I do have a mathematical bent (drum roll….) life is non-linear.
What this means to me is that as you stroll down the path of life, a small perturbation may or may not have a small impact. Think about a walk along a forest path. If you move a little left or right not much happens because you have the forest hemming you in. But if you come to a fork in the path all of a sudden a little left or right can have a big impact on where you end up. I imagine that you’re not impressed at this point, saying something like: “Duuuude, everybody knows this! You have big decision points in your life and of course your choices at these times have major consequences for the direction your life goes in. This is mundane crap even for you and I don’t know why I’m wasting time reading this.”
The thing is that I’m not talking about those kinds of decisions, so pbltpbltpbltpblt to you if that’s what you thought. (‘pbltpbltpbltpblt’ is the sound of a raspberry, and not the fruit kind.). I’ll “mundane crap” you…
Your life’s path isn’t set by those big decisions that you make with deliberation, it’s the small choices you make with hardly a moment’s thought (or things you can’t control) that can have unpredictable consequences. What do I mean by that? Well, for example…
- You have to wait for a train on your way to work, or you try a shortcut. It might just make you a few minutes late, or it might keep you from a horrific accident. (Or get you into one.)
- You stop by the Qwik-E-Mart to get some milk and it gets robbed, or you catch the flu from the guy at the counter and miss a big meeting. Or you don’t stop and your wife’s boss drops by unexpectedly and there’s no milk for his coffee. (Bye bye promotion!)
- The person interviewing you for a job is allergic to your after shave. (Bye bye job!) So maybe you end up living in a box under a bridge as a result, or maybe your next interview yields the job of your life.
- A kind word keeps someone from jumping off that bridge. Or the lack of a kind word doesn’t. (This may have sort of happened to me and uncertainty about it has tormented me for years. Perhaps the subject of a future entry…)
The point is that none of these are what you’d call monumental decisions, but the consequences are tremendous. If these made-up (except for the last one) examples don’t float your boat, how about a real one?
Sometime in late April or early May 1984 (yes, it’s ancient history so don’t ask me which) I was nearing the end of my junior year studying in Switzerland. Being a clever chap (it *was* a long time ago, remember) I occasionally had an evening free from studying or homework, and the evening in question was one of those times. I had a few options for the evening including hanging around the dorm or going uptown for a drink. (Ah, the ‘Lapin Vert’ had a great selection…) I made that latter choice many an evening and would enjoy a leisurely stagger back home.
(As an aside, if you’ve never been to Lausanne Switzerland you won’t appreciate just how ‘up’ uptown is if you live by the lake. About 1500 feet in elevation difference between the lake and the ‘Green Rabbit’ — that’s a bigger elevation difference than in the entire state of Ohio!)
So you’re thinking to yourself, “Another ‘I learned my lesson about alcohol’ story. Whoop dee doo”. Well, not quite. I actually decided to do something else and went halfway uptown (near the train station) to play some ping pong with friends. When we were done I walked back down, completely sober (unlike some other nights I sort of remember…).
The suspense is growing, isn’t it my friend? What gruesome fate awaited me? I’m sure you’re just itching to find out, so…
Not too far from home, actually almost at lake level but still a few minutes away, I was walking down a sidewalk on a poorly-lit street. What I didn’t realize is that a street crew had been working on the sidewalk and a big chunk of it was missing (and not marked). I stepped on the unexpected edge and tore up my left ankle. (For those of you who know me, it’s the one that occasionally makes that loud popping noise.) To spare you the unnecessary details of the rest of the evening, I ended up in a cast for six weeks as a result.
“Ho, hum” you say? Well now for the rest of the story (and since I’m sure I’ve tried your patience I’ll pick up the pace…)
Being in a cast made it inconvenient to walk very far so instead of going over to the lake in the evenings with the rest of my friends, I stayed around the dorm. In doing so I got to know a young Swiss lass who was spending time studying for her exams, and the rest is history. (She didn’t pass, but I don’t think it was my fault.)
So I look at my daughters and realize that they wouldn’t exist at all if I hadn’t decided to play ping pong one evening. Now that’s what I call non-linear…
The lesson is that even the best conceived plans are surrounded by a sea of chaos, populated by trains, shortcuts, convenience stores, after shave, kind words, and even ping pong games, all just itching to manifest themselves (or not) at unexpected times and with unpredictable consequences.
So how do you stay sane knowing that the most insignificant decision you make has as much potential to shape your life as your best-laid plans? When you find out, let me know…