It all happened so quickly. I was riding my bicycle, enjoying an impromptu ride as I waited for the train to arrive. The early morning air was cool, the streets empty, the sky still dark, then the crash. As I lay motionlessly on the ground, my bicycle just a few feet from me, I quickly assessed my physical condition. My head was intact, even though my bicycle helmet had been sent flying in the mishap. I was relatively pain free, and there appeared to be no broken bones, no profuse bleeding. All and all, it seemed I had fared pretty well. I still was not ready to try and get up, unwilling to trust my own assessment, so I decided to ponder how I had become just another bicycle crash statistic. I think this reflective moment was a direct result of my teaching the previous week on Ignatian Spirituality, with its emphasis on finding God in all things, combined with my current reading and focus on Christian discernment. It just seemed to make sense to pause and consider what I might learn from my crash.
St Ignatius writes that when a decision that seemed initially good turns into something quite different, one should look at the beginning, middle, and end to determine where things might have gone wrong. So that is what I did. I began to reflect on the antecedent events and decisions that led up to my crash.
I had arrived at the train station early. The train had not yet arrived, and I had a good twenty minutes before it would. I purchased my ticket and decided that instead of using the stairs to get to my platform, I would ride to the other side. As I headed out I remember thinking how nice this was and how it might be good to get there early each day so I could get a little extra riding in. There was nothing wrong with my decision making process so far. I had not chosen evil over good. I chose between viable options. So where did I go wrong? Now don't get me wrong. I am not saying that just because I crashed, I must have made a bad decision, for I believe we live in a world permeated by sin, a broken world where bad things do happen. However, I also believe it is good to examine my life in order to discern if there is more to this than bad things happening to good people. I also believe that God uses the raw materials of my everyday experiences to teach me what I need to know to live life, so I continued to ponder, hoping to glean some wisdom and insight from my crash.
As I continued to lie there unpacking my decision making process during my brief but hopefully illuminating bike ride, I noticed the clanging sound and red flashing lights of the train crossing about 10 feet away from me and then felt the swoosh of the wind as my train raced by me. After the train had passed and the flashing reds lights and clanging sounds had stopped, it all suddenly became so clear. I now recalled the decisions that I had made just moments prior to the crash, decisions that, while not guaranteeing the crash, did increase the likelihood of such a crash taking place. These dubious decisions happened just as quickly as the crash. I was riding, enjoying a leisurely trek, reveling in the silence and the freedom of unhurried time when suddenly, I heard the distant horn of the train, the clanging of the train crossing and saw the flashing of the red lights light up the sky as the arms of the train crossing began slowly to lower. In that moment, I decided that I would beat the train and cross before the train arrived at the intersection. I was reasonably sure I would be able to make it given my close proximity to the train crossing, the speed of the train, and the fact that it slows down through the crossing. As I realized all this, a smile came to my face. I had decided to live out the kind of math word problem that had seemed so ludicrous in school – If a train going south at 50 miles per hour is 100 yards from the crossing while a bicyclist who is riding at a rate of 15 miles per hour and 75 feet from the crossing is seeking to cross the tracks prior to the train's arrival, who will arrive first at the train crossing? In the moments before the crash, I did not take the time to work out the problem. Instead, my adrenaline began pumping through my body, my pace quickened, and I rode with a new focus. The leisurely ride turned into a quest to get across the tracks before the train arrived. Now at this point, it would be easy to say, “Well, there it is. You made an unwise decision. This was not safe and, if the crossing arms had already descended, even illegal, so you would not have been living in harmony with God's will.” Now I would not disagree with this conclusion, but for me it does not explain the crash unless I see God as a God who re-enforces our every bad decision with swift retribution - which I do not.
I continued to ponder all this as I slowly rose to my feet and explored my recent hypothesis that I was all right and, for the most part, undamaged by the properties of physics and gravity I had just encountered. Now some may say at this point that maybe God was saving me from myself. The crash actually saved my life and was in fact a gift from God, the gracious act of a loving God. Now that could be very true. I do believe God is involved in the ebb and flow of life, but I still needed to continue to explore all this before accepting one of the prior explanations. I desired to learn something about discernment, how an initially good decision could end so badly. As I continued to ponder, I focused on the crash itself. How did I end up on the ground? There are many ways to fall on a bike. A common one is having the bicycle slide out on a patch of oil, sand, or gravel. However, in my situation that was not the case. The bicycle was behind me, and I remember a thud followed by a jolt, then a sense that the bicycle had stopped while I somehow continued moving forward. My bike helmet was sent flying, and I ended up hitting the ground a few feet in front of my bike. How had this happened? Then it came to me - I had hit a curb! But why? How? I am an alert bicyclist, aware of my surroundings. How in the world did I not see a curb? Instinctively I knew that my unawareness of the curb was the key that would unlock the principles of discernment that I had ignored, and that had in turn, helped turn an initially good decision into something that had gone so wrong.
So here are four principles of decision making that, upon reflection, I discovered I had ignored:
Do not get so ‘future focused’ that you lose sight of the ‘now’ of your life. This is sometimes referred to as tunnel vision. I was looking not where I was but I was looking down the tracks, focusing on the approaching train. This seemed wise but in fact neither was wise nor prudent - there was a huge barrier between me and where I was focusing my attention, a barrier easily seen if I was present to my current path but not visible at all when I focused solely on where I was going. My decision to beat the train switched my focus from the now of my experience and surroundings to solely focusing on the future, made me blind to the immediate barriers that I would encounter, and led to my crashing.
Be aware of your motivations. St Ignatius states that the sole goal/motivation for each and every decision that one makes is the greater glory of God. In my situation, God was not a part of the equation, but rather, for some reason, I wanted to beat that train – totally irrational in the light of day, but on that morning, with the clanging and the red lights flashing, the sirens of excitement, danger, and quite possibly personal glory lured me away from the present moment and into an unwise decision. Maybe it was the hope of some kind of personal glory that led me to risk life and limb. It is hard to say (or admit), but this I know: I was not seeking God’s glory as I sped toward that train crossing.
Give yourself time to reflect and to seek and listen to God. I made the decision in the heat of the moment without even the slightest consideration of God or a pondering of what was motivating me. Time is a critical piece of the discernment process. It takes time to make a good decision, but we often make decisions with a “deadline” looming which oft times results in taking God out of the picture along with the exploration of what may be motivating our decision. When there is a lack of time, pressure builds, and this pressure can deafen us to the still small voice of God. It should come as no surprise that when little or no time is given to the discernment process, we end up making poor decisions and crash along the roadway of life. In my situation, I was suddenly on a life and death mission – I had to make it across those tracks before the train otherwise…. God, the glory of God was not a consideration. I had to get moving and get moving now! The immediate pressure screamed at me to get going, and I did just that.
Although this principle is stated last, I believe it is the most critical component for making a good decision. It is the principle of indifference. Indifference produces a freedom from attachment to things, people, success, and significance so that one can access one's deeper desires of loving and glorifying God. Indifference says nothing matters to me: riches, poverty, sickness, health, power, weakness…. Instead, I choose to embrace only that which leads to the greater glory of God. It is indifference that allows us to be detached from all else so that we can say with Jesus, “Not my will but Thy will be done,” knowing that this is my deepest desire. Once I heard the clanging and saw the red lights, I HAD to beat that train so the glory and honor would be mine. This was anything but indifference. I was invested in beating the train and entering into bike rding folk lore.
As you can see from these principles, although physics and gravity did play a role in my crash, the bigger culprit was my inability to apply the above principles to my decision making process. When my attention was diverted by the clanging bells and flashing red light of the train crossing, it all started to go sideways. The good decision to enjoy a leisurely bike ride was hijacked along the way.
What about you? How do you make decisions? How do you discern what you will say yes to and no to? What motivates you? What drives you forward? Do you give the time needed to ponder and consider your focus, your motivation? Can you bring a heartfelt indifference to the decision before you? Next time you have a decision to discern, remember the above principles and seek to employ them. They may very well keep you from crashing and help you to truly enjoy life and more fully embrace the abundant life God offers you.
Also next time a decision, a seemingly good decision goes sideways, go back and seek to discover where it all went wrong. There is much to learn from such explorations.
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