Flow Chart of Life
Someone once told me about a certain teenaged boy, a yeshiva bochur, who had become disaffected with life. He felt unmotivated and adrift. Two warring impulses clashed inside him.
He had been raised in a frum family and had been taught about the supreme value of studying Torah. He wanted to do the right thing and make his parents proud. Lately, however, he felt as if he was just going through the motions. Whatever fire might have once burned inside him had gone cold. Perhaps there had never been any fire. Perhaps he’d been going through the motions his whole life. He didn’t know.
Round and round went his thoughts: a dark hole of discouragement. He did not know which he wanted more, to keep on trying to succeed in his present lifestyle, or to break free and start over again in some other life. Driven in opposite directions by conflicting desires, he felt as if he was being slowly torn apart.
Finally, as he stood on the street one morning, he made the decision… not to decide.
“I’ll stand right here,” he thought. “If a car goes by and offers me a lift to yeshiva, I’ll accept the ride and stay in yeshiva. But if no one does, I’ll drop out of yeshiva and put this all behind me.”
I listened to this story in horror. Imagine being so unmoored from your own deepest desires, from your own life, that you’re willing to take a passive role in making—or rather, not making—such a momentous personal decision! Instead of weighing his options, questioning his own deepest motives, asking advice and seeking guidance, the bochur in effect said, “I refuse to exercise my free will in this matter. I am going to hand over the decision to random fate. I choose not to choose.”
For a believing Jew, the concept of “random fate” doesn’t exist. We are a nation that exists on a plane above fate. When a person detaches himself from his Source, however, he opens himself up to the fickle whims of arbitrary chance. If we remove ourselves from His supervision, He removes His supervision from us.
I don’t know where that confused bochur stood in the depths of his spiritual soul. That is Hashem’s business. Ours is to exercise the free will that He gave us, to make choices that will move us ever closer to Him, closer to what is right and good, closer to fulfilling our destiny in life. In choosing not to choose, that bochur was being remiss. He was spurning the quality that separates us from the animal kingdom. The gift that makes us human.
If This… Then That
Years ago, I took a six-month course in computer programming with the vague idea that this was a prudent step toward earning a decent living someday. (That was before I realized that the only thing I really wanted to do was write!) Before a programmer takes even the first step in composing his programming instructions, he or she has to first envision the logic of the program. This involves writing down an outline of where he wants his program to go. He creates a flow chart.
A flow chart helps him plot the course of the program’s action. “If this happens,” he instructs the mindless machine, “then do such-and-such. If that happens, do the other thing.” For example, the first and last program I ever wrote for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersy (located in the late, lamented World Trade Center) during my brief sojourn there was designed to help the computer decide who was to be granted the privilege of eating in the executive dining room. The instructions ran something like this: “If the employee’s grade is a four or higher, then print out a pass for the dining room. If not, then decline to print out such pass.” A flow chart, in short, is the classic “if… then” document.
This is easily translatable into real life. Suppose I run into an acquaintance at the supermarket. Instantly, the computer in my mind creates a flow chart to help me decide how to react to her. “If she is someone I find interesting and would like to get to know better… then smile and strike up a conversation. If not… then nod briefly and push my cart into the next aisle.”
Such quick, almost intuitive decisions take place throughout our day. They can be so quick as to be almost indistinguishable from impulse. I recently cited a news story in which a young man shot another young man in a public parking mall. His inner flow chart might have read something like this: “If the other guy is someone I like, someone who’s on my side… then slap him five and exchange a few words. But if he’s my enemy and I feel a deep, visceral hatred every time I see his face… then pull out gun, point and shoot.”
You get the picture. Those so-called snap decisions which look as if they’re driven purely by impulse are actually the product of a swift inner logic. A very personal inner logic arising from our life experience to that point, and the emotions that have evolved from them. We like to think that we make decisions with our heads. Too often, we let a faulty, emotion-driven logic make them for us.
Let’s get back to the tortured bochur, standing on a curb wondering which way his life will go. He did not employ any logic, faulty or otherwise, to his dilemma. Whether from laziness, despair, or sheer confusion, he chose not to make the choice at all. He preferred to throw himself into the arms of something he might have labeled “fate,” but he might secretly have been hoping was Hashem.
Maybe he did choose. Maybe he chose to hope for a Divine finger to point out the way on that bleak morning. Maybe his seeming non-decision was actually a cry for help, for insight, for guidance.
The person who told me the story mentioned that a car actually did come by for the bochur that morning. True to his private deal with himself, he remained in yeshiva. How he comported himself there, and how much he gained from his continued stay inside those hallowed walls, I don’t know.
We will also never know what he would have done had the other option on the flow chart come true instead. Had no driver come along to offer him a ride, would he have followed through on his despairing plan? Or would he have belatedly realized that it was his job, as a fully accredited member of the human race, to make a rational choice rather than rely on a figurative toss of the dice to make it for him?
Our ability to choose is our crowning glory. All the talk about mindfulness these days is simply a reminder to use our minds to deal with the infinite number of choices, large and small, that make up our lives. We need to employ our intellect to address those choices, rather than impulse, habit, or fleeting, fickle feelings. One never knows where an even seemingly insignificant choice will lead. Only Hakadosh Boruch Hu can grasp the vast ramifications in space and time.
All we can do is what that hapless bochur felt incapable of doing that day: think it over carefully… and choose.