Sunday, April 2, 2023

April Fool's 2023 - The Folly of Decision-Making

Hello! Welcome to my 18th annual April Fool’s observance. I first came up with this ritual when I realized a strange coincidence, which is that I tend to have very strong opinions and yet also tend to feel clueless a lot of the time-- which does and doesn’t seem right. So I thought I’d hold an event for people to feel strongly and confused together. 

My talk today will be about ten minutes, so you have a sense of how long I’ll be requesting your attention.

This year’s topic is: The Folly of Decision-making-- actually, I want to be less abstract this year, so I’ll get more specific: I’m only talking about irreversible or damn-near irreversible decisions, and mostly about the foolish feelings I have before and after making those decisions. Without referencing it again, I’m actually talking about the question of becoming a parent, but please feel encouraged to make it relatable to yourself-- think about a decision you’ve faced, are facing, or will face, so that you can feel the kind of heaviness I’m referring to. 

Ok! Let’s get into it-- the speech might just as well be called The Goddamn Paradoxes of Time, or The Folly of Living in Time. The decision-making process has the potential to suck powerfully in the before-times and after-times, and this makes me feel very foolish-- and it’s not just me…

There are two bits of conflicting wisdom we’re given about the before and the aftermath of a decision. Before the decision we’re told-- decisions matter! This is your life, you only get one, so you better think and feel and do the research, and re-think, and get others’ opinions. Basically, look before you leap. Facing a decision, everyone wants a positive outcome, and seemingly the best way to secure a positive outcome is to BE CAREFUL. No one wants to have to deal with a negative outcome. Decisions matter, so be mindful. As Funkadelic says “Wake up! Live in the presence of your future!”

But then? After the decision-- suddenly we all become super-Buddhist about it?? It’s like, hey man, you gotta accept what is! The past is destiny! In order to live well, you just have to accept reality!

I hope you see the foolishness here. Before the decision, everything matters, and we have to aim high, and refuse to settle for less. Then after the decision we have to let go of expectations and work with “what is”?? What the heck just happened? Does the decision matter or not? Do our desires and hopes and expectations matter or not? When they don’t go according to plan, shouldn’t we feel something negative?

There’s an emotional absurdity here. Before the decision, the main emotions are desire and fear; specifically, fear of regret. And then after the decision, we’re told: “Let go of desire! Don’t waste time on regret!” We’re asked to suddenly switch emotional gears, and for me, I just can’t do it; it’s emotional whiplash.

Before continuing to my current emotional solution to this paradox, let’s talk about the role of time. Consider the phenomenon I’m calling “the shock of the before becoming the after.” My first experience of this was having a minor (but expensive!) car accident when I was 16. As soon as it happened, I was shocked that it simply couldn’t be undone, especially since only a minute before the crash didn’t even exist. This shock was a feeling of being stuck-- not only stuck in an undesired future, but also stuck in the regret at past Matt’s seeming inability to avoid this future. Ever felt that shock?

Now I just mentioned “past Matt,” so let’s get into past, present, and future selves-- we’re all of them, but, y’know, only one at a time. What’s the consequence of this? Well, past Matt keeps making decisions for future Matt. And that’s how life works. But, what the heck? Past Matt doesn’t know the future, and yet he gets to make decisions about it? Past Matt doesn’t even really know future Matt, but he makes decisions for him? It’s unavoidable, and yet very, very foolish. The virtue required here is foresight, but I often have little of it, and even if you’re good at foresight, you’re still gonna lack a ton of knowledge about the future and yourself in it.

My earliest examples of lacking foresight: In 1993, my brother was given two CD players for his Bar Mitzvah, and I was offered one, which I turned down, because who even owns CDs? Two years later I felt very foolish. Fast forward to 2001, heading to college, and my parents offer to buy me a computer with a DVD player on it. You can guess how this ends.

Basically, a future is a really weird thing to have. It’s like, we have it, but we also don’t? And we can want a specific one, but we can only do so much about it? Do we “have” a future or not? Do we have a bunch of futures? What does that even mean?

Ok-- let’s arrive at some emotional solutions. To the first part, I give credit to Dr. Yujia Song, my philosophical counselor-- yep that’s a thing, and I have one, pretty cool, right? She recently pointed out something completely obvious, except it wasn’t obvious until she said it, which is: You’re always in the past of your next decision. Right? Obvious now, but it complicates that selves-in-time thing I was just talking about-- in the present, I’m the future of past Matt, and the past of future Matt. Get it? Right now you are all living in a past, a present, and a future, from a certain point of view. 

What does this mean emotionally? That the folly of regret isn’t that you have to “just accept and move on,” but that you’re never simply “stuck” in a future, because you’re always also in a past as well, a realization which returns to me a sense of power-- I can still decide about what comes next!

The second part of the solution I’ll credit to Rabbi Zaslow, who recently spoke from the bimah about the importance of process thinking-- meaning, seeing ourselves as always in the middle of something, not at the end. This insight implies an important emotional task-- to stop assuming the present is forever! And with that, stop assuming that any current hatred of the present is the only response I’ll ever have to it. This is easy intellectually, but very hard emotionally. We might call this the folly of living in the present, with two contradictory wisdoms of its own-- first to “Be Here Now,” and second, that “This too shall pass.” It’s the challenge of living gracefully in the present, even while also hating it, a challenge for Present Matt anytime he’s feeling regretful.

And now, the hardest part, which is drumming up a practical way to rise to the emotional challenges of suspending regret, strengthening the ability to face the future, and the patience to abide in a difficult and indeterminate present.

It turns out this speech at its core isn’t about decisions or time, but actually about desire and its follies. To live life, to inhabit our own life, to continue onwards-- all of that requires desire. We have to want. We have to have some kind of sense of what we want, even if it’s a false sense, because that's how motivation works-- it's an assessment of our current emotions and then projecting them into the future. And this is silly, because who knows the future, and who really has control? Thus we are fools by wanting and pursuing what we want, and this foolishness exposes itself when things appear to go poorly. 

The negative emotions this stirs up are appropriate, and yet could be considered the root of two pathologies-- anxiety disorders and depressive disorders. It’s demoralizing to have our decisions and the course of our lives appear to go poorly, and that can make us give up on wanting entirely, AKA depression. Or, we start to fear anticipated regret and become terrified and paralyzed, AKA anxiety. For myself, the primary symptom of both depression and anxiety is agitation-- agitated from wanting to want but having this depression remove my capacity for appetite; agitated because I want to act, but this anxiety refuses all action. I want resolution, and I refuse to rest until things are made whole, even while wholeness seems impossible-- and so I get an agitated anxiety and depression.

(Sigh) And of course even these apparent pathologies hold some necessary wisdom. In the difficult aftermath of a change, it’s appropriate to spend some time mourning the loss of previous possibilities, and to learn lessons from our regret. In the precursor to change, it’s appropriate to be anxious about an unknown future, and to use that anxiety to motivate careful planning. It all makes sense and none of it makes sense.

So, our emotional tasks, in brief? To feel anxiety and regret, and yet still to desire. And, in the loss of sense of desire, to wait for it to return, rather than assuming that this current anxious or depressive paralysis is the only internal state possible from now on.

At the end of every matter, which itself is the beginning of the next matter, there’s a question we should always return to-- “Ok, so what do I want now?” We must have a desire, feel the anxiety, make the decision, feel the regret, and then move to the folly of having another desire. 

Pretty good solution, right? Except-- all I’ve done is beg the question of knowing desire. What the heck do we want; where does that desire come from; which desires should be trusted and pursued? Maybe I’ll cover this in a future speech; call it the prequel to this one. For now, I’ll keep chewing on this question, and hopefully remember it and be true to it in the future-- the question: “So, what do I want now?” To desire, to return to desire after being in the throes of loss and regret-- this is how we live gracefully in time, gracefully in the before and after of any of the largest decisions of our lives.

Thank you!

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