Decisions are the hardest part of life, when we take fate in our hands and cast off in our own direction. Even the word itself is hard – it comes from the Latin decidere, meaning to cut off. No wonder we sometimes have that feeling of being on a knife’s edge trying to decide. The decisions we make literally cut off life directions.
So we use our big brains to try to understand our decisions before we make them, to make sure we make the right ones. We seek advice from friends and experts, we gather information from books and the Internet. Many of us know to sleep on big decisions, and a few of the most disciplined among us may even apply statistical tools to the effort.
Yet in the end, it is still impossible to make the right decision. No matter how hard we try, we can’t truly know what direction the world will take. We must decide anyway, and do it wisely.
That is not an argument against understanding the decisions we face. We have responsibilities to ourselves and those around us to make the best decisions we can. But we should not do it to make the right decisions; we should do it so we can make our decisions wisely. The wise response to facing an impossible task is to look inside ourselves. We should understand the decision as best we can, but we must keep in mind that we are building that understanding not to find the impossible right path, but to have compassion for ourselves after the decision is made, come what may.
Our instinct for empathy, for understanding how others feel, is what drives us to seek people who have faced our decisions already. What was it like to start your own company? When did your body get back to normal after a third child? How does it feel to go back to work once your kids are in school? Who are you voting for? We ask not just because we want to know what others are doing and what will happen, but because we want to know how it feels. Such empathy is important, and it gives us valuable perspective and insight into our decisions.
But the act of deciding is not just an act of empathy. It is an act of compassion, the wish to relieve the suffering we see in others. When we make decisions, we imagine how life will be for our future selves and those around us, and then we decide on a path that best balances their suffering with what may happen. Our instinct for compassion is what drives us to make decisions. Without compassion, we would simply talk about and study our decisions forever, searching in vain for the right one. We would never decide.
Keeping compassion top of mind changes our perspective towards decisions. It instills wisdom by motivating us to value the most important and meaningful information we have, to seek the truth even when it hurts, and to make decisions that motivate us, reduce our regret and increase our happiness. It points us to some of the most enduring wisdom of all. Know thyself.
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