There are times when we’re called on to make a decision. I’m not talking about everyday decisions but the momentous ones, those choices that reveal who you are. We all face these moments from time to time. Sometimes they seem to come out of nowhere, but even when we see them coming, there’s not a lot you can do to prepare for them. Your schooling prepares you for some things, as does your upbringing and experience in general, but quite often nothing prepares you and you can’t consult anyone either. It’s as if life itself were to walk up to you, look you in the eyes and demand a decision: will it be door #1 or door #2? What are you going to do? What hangs in the balance isn’t just what you stand to gain or lose but you yourself—what kind of human being you are, or choose to be.
There are many examples of this. Let’s start with an obvious one: if you ever arrive at a university, you’ll be asked to declare a major. What’s at stake here isn’t limited to what courses you’ll be taking for a few years, what knowledge you’ll acquire, or even what kind of career it will lead to but something far more profound. The work you do isn’t just a means to an end. It gives rise to habits of mind and of experience. We are those habits. You are, as some of the philosophers of existence taught us to see, what you do—not just what you do for a living but the decisions you make and the actions that follow from them over time.
Let’s think for a minute about what Karl Jaspers, one of the foremost philosophers of existence of the 20th century, called “limit situations,” those situations where you come face to face with your personal finitude. It’s normally unsettling—the encounter with mortality, suffering, guilt, anxiety, or fear. Consider fear: when was the last time you experienced this, really felt it in your bones? I’m not talking about bad dreams or horror movies, real as those experiences can be. When life presents you with a situation, maybe out of the blue, that arouses real fear, what do you do? Instinct kicks in: fight or flight. Which is it? You’re faced with an either-or; you’re not forced to do one or the other, but you are forced to decide. You either show courage or you put your tail between your legs. Sometimes there’s no middle ground. The person who opts for cowardice is a coward. That’s who they are. If you choose courage, you’re an entirely different kind of human being. Then there’s suffering. This comes in a thousand forms. Some of them are properly medical phenomena, but most are not. Rather often human suffering is less a problem to be solved than it’s a part of our existence, something that forces us to take action, make a decision, or otherwise do something, maybe think something. There’s meaning in suffering—often anyway, but what it means has to be thought about. It’s rarely self-evident. We need to feel and to think our way through it, decide what if anything it’s going to mean to us, whether to hold onto it or let it go, whether there’s anything to learn from it. The value of suffering lies in the response it demands from us, the change in perspective that can follow from it, the deepening of character it sometimes leads to, or the illusions that may be lost.
Now consider guilt: no one wants to feel this, but the significance and the value of it again lie in the decision that it might lead to—if I choose, that is, to face up to my guilt rather than run from it. I might resolve to change my ways, to stop doing whatever it was that caused that feeling. Then there’s anxiety. Many people experience this. This is sometimes a form of psychological disturbance requiring psychiatric intervention, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the very ground beneath us trembles, not because we’re suffering from an affliction but because we’re human beings. It can lead us to think about how we’re living, force a decision, or pry open the mind in the way that Martin Heidegger taught us to see in his notion of “being-toward-death.” This isn’t a very pleasant feeling either, but facing up to anxiety—the possibility of not being at all—can lead toward something like authenticity or moments of resoluteness and openness. Life can turn upon these moments. It’s here that you can take your whole life into your hands, maybe transform it or make it your own. Reading a good book can also achieve this. I’ve already spoken about the importance of reading books, and this is part of their importance. By the time you reach adulthood, if you’re not able to say “This book changed my life” about at least two or three great books, you’ve missed something. Here again I’m confronted with a decision: to be like this character, to think like this author, or in some way or other to change my life. Great literature has always done this. So do other forms of art, if they have anything to say.
There’s therapy for just about everything now, experts to consult and pharmaceutical remedies for what used to be considered ordinary experiences that are a part of life and fully within the competence of most human beings. Whoever said that life is easy or free of suffering, or that it should be, doesn’t know much about life. Living well doesn’t mean living without difficulty. Difficulty is a universal fact of our existence, and if you haven’t experienced your share of it yet, you will—if you’re doing it right. Wrestling with this—coping, surpassing, dealing in whatever way we can—is a task that belongs to each of us, and anyone who’s waiting for a solution, medical or otherwise, to the problem of human suffering or the other limit situations that life throws our way is going to wait a long time. These are not properly speaking “problems” at all but a universal fact of our condition. They require something from us—an action or a decision, and it’s these that define us. Acting is being. There’s no space between the two. If you lie, you are a liar. If you cower, you’re a coward, and so on and so forth. You can also change these things. Nothing here is set in stone. The truth about you isn’t an altogether stable fact. The self isn’t some mysterious entity hidden somewhere in your body, but is a function of the decisions you make and act upon habitually through time. Who you are is the person who did this, that, and the other thing—your past, and your anticipated future—rather than a thing of some kind, a metaphysical substance. The self is a story or a personal history, not a thing, and a story turns upon actions.
Momentous decisions aren’t always the obvious ones. Whether and whom to marry, whether to have kids, choice of career—these are terribly important for everyone, but there are also choices that are smaller of scale but momentous in their own way, quite often in a way that no one but the individual sees. You might find yourself in a situation where you’re tempted to do something you probably shouldn’t, some minor indiscretion which you’ll probably get away with if you do it. No one will ever know and no one’s going to get hurt, or not much, so do you do it? You tell yourself it’s a trifle, and maybe it is. I’m not talking about major breaches of morality. What hangs in the balance here might be more than it seems. These choices don’t just reveal who you are, they make you who you are. What makes these decisions important is nothing in themselves but what they lead to over time, the habits they form, and the self that they create.