I used to think the hardest thing in life was choosing right over wrong, and I had my reasons for thinking so.
As a kid, I’d faced and lost my fair share of internal conflicts, yielding to the visceral pull of The Dark Side rather than the cerebral call of Doing The Right Thing. For example, I was a childhood kleptomaniac. As a second grader, I noticed, desired, a stole a classmate’s bouncy ball, which was one of a string of small-scale thefts. But petty as they were, I wonder what my actions cost. A pack of pilfered mints from Kroger didn’t hurt the company’s P&Ls, but it might have hurt me. As I looked inward at my own battles and outward at the public displays of others’ moral failures, the choice between right and wrong came to occupy a central place in my view of how life worked.
Pretty much, to young Jonathan, life was a path with a series of simple, two-option forks—the right way and the wrong way. To navigate the path, you had to exercise the sheer willpower to grit your teeth and do the self-evident right thing in every situation.
I thought to live well was come to a fork and to choose against the immoral path in favor of the moral path. In this path-as-life metaphor, the way each path looks mirrors the appeal each choice has in a moment of temptation. So the wrong path looked appealing; it was easy, with grassy walkways you could amble down. The right path looked hard; it had gravel and rain ruts that made for slow-going. You can imagine chirping birds flittering above the sun-lit wrong path and a permanent rain cloud above the right one. This “Path Model” is simple, but for that reason it’s super-compelling. It allowed me to see the world as black and white, with energizing high-stakes.
And while we’re talking about it, the Path Model wasn’t without its merits. It took seriously the difficulty of living with a moral compass and the inconvenience of caring about the right thing. Every rock in your shoe or uneven footfall on that gravely, rain-rutted path really can make you second-guess your choice to be on it. It takes stamina to sustain that kind of friction, especially since we know how easy it is to quit: the traveler can turn back at any time, rapidly losing the ground they spent so much effort gaining. The Path Model shows off the endurance of people who fight to do the right thing, their hard-won strength masked by how tired they can look.
The Path Model got me a long way, all the way through my college graduation. But then, the complexity of the adult like woke me up to the fact that my model was too simple.
On the first day of my post-grad 9-5, I woke up not to summer break but to the rest of my life. A life transition feels like a fork-in-the-road, but this was not the fork-in-the-road change I expected—the kind where I know the moral thing to do and just had to choose to do it. Before, all my major life structures were decided for me: school, summer break, school, repeat. But all of the sudden, there were no built-in structures, and I had to build the rest of my life for myself.
On top of that, the change from the student life to the adult life raised a bunch of important, life-altering choices, but they weren’t all moral choices anymore. Take the career arena, for an example: Should I move to DC and go to law school, or should I stay in Chattanooga and become a counselor? Am I cut out for the political world, or should I just teach English? The path model couldn’t really help me make these decisions, since it wasn’t like I was choosing between being a bank robber or a banker. Instead, in the dawning light of my early adulthood, I saw before me not two paths, but, like, twenty-two. I was armed with little decision-making criteria for choosing between any of them, so all my ideas sat around in my head, like a succulent plant that never really dies but also never really blossoms into anything.
I got my first job out of school kind of by accident. The company needed a communications intern, and my application video was funny, so they hired me for the role, which I hadn’t known existed. My plan was to work there for the summer, find a job teaching English for the next school year, and then apply to grad school. But since I couldn’t pick a grad school, one summer turned into one year, which has since turned into three and a half.
Along the way, I had a breakthrough: at this stage in life, the choices that kept me from moving forward weren’t between right and wrong, but between a web of competing priorities. These were more like a balancing act than a fork in the road. Yes, my life would take the shape of the moral decisions I made, but it would also be shaped by the things I chose to prioritize: Challenging myself versus playing to my strengths, cooking to save money or eating out to save time, etc.
“Adulthood is a series of impossible trade-offs,” Alan Noble says. Indeed, adulthood highlighted discernment as a life dynamic that had always been there but was less dominating when I was younger. With the “Path Model,” the direction I should move was pretty clear-cut (be the banker, not the bank robber), and the crux of the matter was willpower. But now, no one could choose the path for me. Instead, I’d been tasked with the burden of choosing.
You say neurotic, and I say thoughtful, but either way choosing is a burden I often shrug off for later. The other day, a mentor of mine told me his advice is just to try something and move on if it stinks. I don’t live like that, at least not right now. But in the meantime, as I get less risk-averse, I’m learning to build habits that keep me in line and doing things I care about. From this gradual, day-by-day formation I hope to gain the wisdom necessary to choose one path from the many potential paths, with grace and confidence in the face of ambiguity.