On the Urgency of Choice


I want to give myself
utterly
as this maple
that burned and burned
for three days without stinting
and then in two more
dropped off every leaf…

From Jane Hirshfield’s LAKE AND MAPLE

An acquaintance of mine wrote me the other week. I had just unsubscribed from the e-group of a Zen sangha based in Marikina, and he wanted to understand what had prompted me to leave. Would it not be better, he asked, to take an “extended break” and to leave a “lifeline” intact for some tomorrows yet to come?

It was a very pragmatic question—and one I’d never thought I’d be asked. My whole life I’ve collected lifelines: alternatives, back-ups, fallbacks, recourses, safety nets, substitutes. From careers to courses, from residences to religions, I’ve refrained from the fidelity of choice and elected to skim on the surface of things. Depth offers security; breadth offers freedom—and I’d always succumbed to the seductions of space.

Maybe it’s the fact that you’re about to turn thirty, a close friend of mine supposed. You’ve conducted your experiments and you’ve concluded your explorations. You know what you want and there’s no danger from uncertainty.

I don’t know if her assessment is entirely accurate: growing older has not been a vaccine against the constant threat of ambiguity. If anything, the agglomeration of my commitments—most of them contradictory—has benefited me in ways both startling and surprising. If now I’m whittling down my choices and narrowing the horizon of my interests, it has less to do with certainty than it has to do with urgency.

The point is I’m running out of time. I can no longer rely on the advent of clarity or the arrival of conviction—these promised benefits of maturity that seem more and more delayed. A diversified portfolio is one form of insurance, and all insurance premiums get costlier with age.

So now I’m severing all my lifelines and throwing caution (or at least all precautionary measures) to the wind. It has nothing to do with optimism and everything to do with grace—with the trust, however tentative, that should the world fall apart, should things come to a head, should push come to shove, deliverance will come and it will be near to hand.

And maybe this is what it means to come to age in our contemporary world—that we discover courage rather than conviction and revel in risk rather than revile it. In the end, we have only one life to live. Let’s not waste it on practice.

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