Sunday, February 13, 2011

Deciding Makes the Difference

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. (Deuteronomy 30.19-20)


We’ve all known people who survived insults and injuries only to waste an inordinate amount of time (theirs and others’) keeping their ordeals alive. And before going on, I should clarify they’re not tragic souls severely traumatized by physical, emotional, or sexual violence. They’re the sorts who encounter difficulties on par with anyone else: neglectful parents, rival siblings, faithless lovers, bad neighbors, treacherous colleagues, overbearing relatives, deceitful friends—i.e., the usual suspects in life’s rogues’ gallery. Which raises the first question: Who doesn’t smart from wounds inflicted by toxic people? (No one.) Yet these folks are convinced their conflicts merit constant revisiting. They develop a genius for derailing even the most banal conversations with embittered recollections of what Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” She did this to me. He said that to me. They treat me terribly. Desperation to set themselves apart with victim statements typically ends with others setting them aside, because there’s just no good answer to the next question: If the people who hurt them are/were so toxic, why go on talking about them? Over time, people who nurse toxic wounds turn toxic by choice, which invites many around them to choose to walk away.

Substances we abuse—from sugar to hard drugs—are poisons. Taken in small amounts they trigger euphoria caused by our bodies releasing chemicals and altering responses to counteract their effects. Used consistently, however, the body begins to anticipate their influences to the point it depends on them. As any addict can verify, unchecked desire to get high leads to uncontrollable drive to get “normal.” The only way to reset the body’s natural balance is by consciously choosing to deprive it of intoxicants it relies on. This physiological requirement is no different than the psychological one to restore mental and emotional balance after habitually poisoning ourselves with toxic people and memories.

Dangerous people and places can be intoxicating in euphoric ways. They’re new to our systems and set off a lot of exciting bells and whistles. But when the ugly side of the thrill surfaces, it’s ours to choose whether it continues to absorb our time and energy or we treat it like an unfortunate lapse that results in nausea and hangover. Nursing poison makes toxicity normal. Resolutely rebounding from toxic episodes is how we restore healthy equilibrium to heart, mind, and soul. When we wrest our minds from intoxication’s hold—be it after a nasty bender or years soaked in bitterness—what’s most important is summoning the resolve to deprive ourselves of the poison. Deciding makes the difference.

Responsibility of Choice

The importance of making healthy decisions impacts every area of our lives. Everything we do, we do by choice. Moses repeatedly stresses this in his departing instructions to Israel. Up to this point, he’s made all the decisions for them, most of them good. He’s also made some really bad ones, though, that cost his privilege to enter The Promised Land with his people. And now he’s greatly concerned that the Hebrews’ unfamiliarity with responsibility of choice may lead to disaster. The euphoria of living in a strange land among strange people may incite them to choose toxic ideas over godly ideals. They may mistake God’s blessings for entitlements. They may presume the victories and miracles of God’s continued intervention are of their own doing. They may choose arrogance that leads to death and disobedience that gives rise to curses.

Moses challenges Israel, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.” (Deuteronomy 30.19-20) Choose life. It sounds so simple. Yet as we watch Israel repeatedly suffer from irresponsible choices, we’re reminded opting for healthy, life-affirming attitudes and actions often presents us with tough decisions. Sure, at times, what’s best is immediately apparent. In these situations, it’s easy to decide which choices lead to life. But many more times, our options lack clarity and outcomes aren’t at all assured. We may be misled by what initially seems right. Once we discover the flaws in our choice, new decisions come into play.

It’s Not Too Late

Proverbs 14.12 tells us, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” It’s not at all unusual to travel far down a seemingly healthy path before we realize it steers us in deadly directions. It’s hardly uncommon to have euphoria overtake us to such a degree we’re unaware we’ve become captives to poisons that intoxicate us. Yet clarity that eluded us at first eventually makes itself known. We recognize the road we’ve taken is no way to go. Its toll costs more than we can pay. It won’t end in blessings and life we crave. Our need to compensate for toxins we encounter on unhealthy paths creates unhealthy dependencies. We’re out of balance. It’s time for a new decision.

Will we stick with our original choice, knowing it curses us to die a slow death? Will we continue to feed its toxins with increased doses of “woe-is-me”? Or will we choose life? Will we consciously deprive ourselves of deadly influences we’ve come to rely on? Will we purge our conversations of life-depleting victim statements? Will we rid our hearts, minds, and souls of self-defeating bitterness? Will we quit our road to nowhere for one that leads to blessings and life?

“Choose life,” Moses says, “so that you and your children will live and that you may love God, listen to God, and hold fast to God.” The decision to abandon toxic people, situations, and mindsets has far-reaching implications. It restores our inner balance, as well as the balance of lives we touch and our balance with God. Inevitably, we’ll make bad decisions. We’ll choose ways that appear right only to discover they lead to death. Thankfully, we’re never forced to live with bad choices. Choosing life consistently asks us to make new decisions—tough decisions. But if blessings and life are truly what we seek, we’ll muster the resolve to choose what’s best. No matter how long we’ve suffered due to faulty choices in the past, it’s not too late. Undoing the past can’t be done. But choosing a better path is well within our capability. Deciding makes the difference.

No matter when we discover a chosen road won’t end in blessings and life, it’s never to late to decide on a better path.


Sherry Peyton said...

Wow, what a great post Tim. Everyone knows toxic people, the one's who as you say, never tire of relating all the woes of their lives. Let's face it, most of us have had dysfunctional families in some degree. I know people my age, that were still grousing about the fact that "mother loved my brother more than me."

Life is about progress, learning from out pasts, forging new futures, and growth, always seeking that which stretches us into a greater humanity.

As always the depth of your analysis leads me to much pondering.

Tim said...

Sherry, I agree that this is one of those "comes-with-time" lessons we all have to learn. I recently spent some time with an older lady who kept brining up all the wrongs done to her by her siblings, most of whom have long left the scene. I bit my lip to keep from saying, "They're dead!"

And I think we could argue that harms we cause to one another live on. But they only live by our choice. It's a graveyard mentality--exactly what Jesus talked about when He said, "Let the dead bury the dead." Christ gives us abundant life. We can choose life!

Thank for your thoughts here. As always, they are a blessing to us all.


Anonymous said...

I simply love that the dialogue in the comments is always as enriching to me as the posts themselves!

I may or may not have just sent an email blast of this post to a bunch of church folk. Same text our guest preacher focused on yesterday, so this is a great continuation for us in addition to being an incredibly important post in itself.

Hugs and blessing to you and Walt! We're finally above the freezing mark here, and I hope you're blessed with the same or better!


Tim said...

Jake, I totally agree. The conversations that follow the posts are often where things get down to the nitty-gritty. I'm always eager to hear from everyone for that reason!

You're too kind in sharing the post with other people. I trust something in it will speak to them.

Our pastor also delved into this text yesterday morning as a means of opening our understanding of Christ's discussion of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount. (All that legal stuff about murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, etc.) She said that His purpose was to open our awareness of failures that lead to the "big sins"--e.g., anger and impatience that often contribute to violence and murder. Choosing life, she said, was nipping thoughts and attitudes that foment tragedy in the bud. And often our response to these commands ("I'd never kill anyone or be unfaithful") masks our resistance to contributive shortcomings that precede the "crimes." We resist these commands because they expect us to mitigate the sins they address, and as a result, our lives and community suffer from unkindness and selfish behaviors.

She ended with this wonderful prayer: "Make our resistance to your kingdom futile so that our community may thrive and live for you!"

I love that!

Thanks, dear friend, for your thoughts here. They enrich the dialogue greatly. (And we're thawing out here in Chicago, too. I'm so eager to see what will grow out of all this snow and mud!)

Best to you and Cody.

Blessings always,

Philomena Ewing said...

Tim, this is a fine post and I also find it challenges me because although I know the absolute nightmare that comes from spending time with people who drain me emotionally and spiritually, I also feel that this is where we are often being challenged to give the most too because these people are in dreadful need.
It is that endless balance of setting boundaries and taking care of ourselves before we can care for others that is always at stake.
Also on a personal level I can look back at crisis times in my own life when I must have been a real pain in the neck to those around me but they didn't give upon me. It is a hard one to get things right here. I find as I am getting older that I am far more able to say No and not engage with people who I know I will never change. But I can't say I always feel good about it !!
i also think that some of the greatest spiritual writers are in fact the wounded ones that have shown us that the spiritual journey is fraught with doubt and failure and that it is OK too.

Tim said...

Phil, I understand your hesitation here. I also wrestle with finding the right balance--boundaries for self-preservation vs. compassion where it's needed. The folks I allude to, though, don't exhibit a desire for help. They're content in their misery and have a deep-seated compulsion to draw others into it. It's their drug and they want company while they get high.

Discernment is so important as we extend ourselves to others. Our time and energy must be spent where it will achieve good, rather than nurture selfishness and elective dysfunction.

We often forget that Jesus never claimed to heal anyone. Anytime He refers to the source of someone's healing, He says, "Your faith has made you well." This is why we see Him thronged by people, yet never doubling back for those who were not healed. Healing begins with us. It comes from within us. And it's accomplished by our faith. All we can do for those malingering in self-pity and woes is encourage them to increase their faith in order to be healed. And that presumes they want healing, which isn't always the case.

Deciding to step away from toxic people, places, and mindsets is not easy to do. It creates a great deal of anxiety about failure to show compassion and patience, etc. Yet we must always ask ourselves, in permitting ourselves to get mired down in another's habitual toxicity, how many others are we neglecting who earnestly crave compassion, patience, joy, peace, wisdom, counsel, and all of the other gifts we bring? Who is suffering unduly because we're coddling someone else enamored with suffering?

These are tough questions that expect tough decisions. Choose life--it asks us to look always for growth and potential and sincerity--i.e., health--in all we do, including those we reach out to.

Finally, I totally agree, many of the greatest sages and writers were deeply troubled souls. Yet when we listen to them, what we hear are assurances of hope and health--of faith that makes us well.

I so appreciate your thoughts here, Phil. They circle back to a thorny issue buried in this idea of deciding what's best for our welfare. We must always pray for the Spirit's guidance in helping us discern where we're needed and whom we can serve!

Blessings, dear friend,

genevieve said...

If toxic people affect us long after we are away from then they still have control over us. The best thing is to move on and choose a better way of handling life's choices.

Weighing the options of our decisions is vital. Not everything that looks good is gold. I see it as making a decision and living with the consequences. That's part of any choice we make.

Tim said...

You make an excellent point, Gen! If only there were a concrete way to measure the time we give to people who mean us no good. I'm sure even the most disciplined of us would be amazed. The sooner we decide to move on from people who steal our joy, dignity, and confidence, the healthier we'll be!

Thanks for this. It pulls everything into perspective!

Blessings always,