Were it so simple! But it's not. We come to the proverbial "fork in the road" many times in our lives and cannot simply "take it" because we -- unlike Yogi -- face a choice.
We face a choice, either "this" way or "that" way, and each one seems to be equally appealing, or on the other hand, equally unappealing. And sometimes the seeming consequences of our decision paralyze us. We may feel overwhelmed at the thought of what we may lose if we make the wrong decision. Or perhaps even more disturbing is that situation we face when we know that any decision we make will result in having to give up something too important to lose. Here we face stalemate: We cannot decide.
So here it is, the "either-or" of life, the fork in the road which brings us to the moment of truth in our existence when we face a difficult choice. Do you remember that horrifying scene in the movie, "Sophie's Choice" (1982) in which a Polish immigrant mother, sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp of World War II, faces the unbearable decision of choosing which of her two children will live, a choice sadistically forced upon her by a Nazi officer. It is a searing scene that exposes us to the hellish evil human beings can impose on others.
And I am happy to realize with you that the great majority of us will likely not ever have to face such a choice as Sophie's. However, as I was saying earlier, the choices we do have to face may feel tinged with the chilling hint of a foreboding dilemma forced upon us that we will do all within our power to avoid. We postpone the decision, we try not to think about it, or we attempt to distract ourselves in unhealthy ways of acting out so that we can cover up the approaching decision with some fleeting feel-good experience.
Think about it. Consider how we like to think that the good times of the present will last forever. And then we go around the curve of our life's path and discover an approaching fork in the road: a new job, a transfer, a relocation, a tantalizing relationship, a medical decision, a change in our life situation brought on by aging, an accident, or a fluctuation in the Dow Jones. And sometimes even the positive developments in our lives bring on an unanticipated fork in the road. We inherit a lot of money, we graduate with a prestigious degree after years of hard work when it seemed impossible, we fall in love with a partner we feared did not exist, a child exceeds in some facet of life and fills us with joy but one which will require a change in priorities of spending and following other dreams.
So it goes. These developments fall within the areas I have called the five fundamental questions of life: (1) Who am I? (2) Where do I belong? (3) Where am I to go? (4) What shall I do? (5) Why? You will notice that they all have to do with choices.
1. Who am I?
This is the question of identity. Here is the problem. My identity changes daily even as I remain the same person! How can it be otherwise? I age, circumstances change all around me in my circle of family, friends, acquaintances, and world dynamics. I make mistakes, I learn, hopefully I grow, and as I do so, I change. My appearance changes. If you have forgotten or not accepted how much you have changed, just go back to your high school's 50th reunion! That's right, those "old people" you see sitting in the hotel's banquet hall? Those are your old classmates who are not alone in their changes in appearance! But not just appearance. When you listen to their stories, you hear most fascinating things, and occasionally a story that truly astounds. Someone you knew to be the most likely to succeed, has not; and the one you thought to be a ne'er-do-well has accomplished more than you ever have or will! Go figure. Yes, our identities change, more than we may realize, and then we look in the mirror and ask: Who am I?
2. Where Do I Belong?
This is the question of community. I am talking here about all those groups in which we enclose ourselves: family, religious affiliations, clubs, social groups, political party, geographical region or country, etc. It is a part of our nature to belong to social structures. It is also the nature of some groups, organizations, or families to demand and expect uncompromising loyalty. In fact, our identities are closely tied to these groups. We identify with specific social structures until we do not, and then the problem occurs. I change, circumstances change, and then I sense a shift in the groups to which I want to belong. Even family loyalties evolve in unexpected directions for some of us. We sense we no longer fit in as we once did, and the fork in the road appears: Where do I belong?
3. Where Am I to Go?
This is the question of life's direction, or vocation. Once again, you will see the connection between the first two questions and this third one. You begin to see here the interpenetrating nature of these questions. One influences all, and they all influence each single one, because my vocation will be strongly influenced by my background and participation in family life and the various social groups to which have belonged. But it is also true that we as individuals strike out on our own, so to speak. We hear an inner voice, we encounter some person, event, or place that speaks to us, and we know: "this is my calling; this is the direction in which I must head." But it may seem to be too risky, too challenging, too unacceptable to people whose opinions I value, or the "call" may come at an inconvenient time in my life. I face a choice: Where am I to go?
4. What Should I Do?
Here we come to the question of our morality. I am looking here at something deeper than an organization's code of ethics, as important as that may be, or the family of origin's way of behaving, as positive as it might possibly be. In other words, it becomes an easy matter to follow the "play book" of our family or social group or work place, and to do so without ever coming to grasps with my own moral code. The way I think, speak, act, and work may be very disconnected as far as my morality is concerned. I may act one way at home and another way at work. To return to the movie, "Sophie's Choice" and the behavior of the Nazi officer who acted so cruelly toward Sophie and her children, it reminds us of stories of Nazi officials who did the most despicable things in their work but who then returned home as a loving, sensitive, compassionate father and husband. Such a life is compartmentalized. This is easy for us to do in our world today where the bottom line of making money for a corporation may lead us to adopt a "leadership" style praised in the workplace but completely contrary to one's private and personal beliefs and values. However, something may happen, something crosses our path, and we get a notion of discontent in which we see the incompatibility of our life style with who we want to be on the inside. We then face a choice: What should I do?
I have formulated this question in the most simple way I know to express what I believe to be a matter of deep spirituality. This question arises from the human spirit that longs to look underneath the other questions. In other words, our identities, communities, vocations, and moral patterns become rigid; they no longer serve life and our potential to realize the truth of our being. Life does not stand still. Bidden or not bidden, recognized or not, choices arrive at our door each day calling for decisions that may not come easily or lightly. That is the problem. As Yogi Berra's simplistic approach suggests, when we come to the fork in the road we may indeed take it with no thought at all, or we may not even recognize it as a fork! We simply "keep on keeping on" even though life may be calling for us to make some significant change -- or -- to recommit to what we are doing but in a more conscious way.
This is the deep longing of the human spirit, to become conscious. And it is the "fork in the road" that is placed there to awaken us from our slumber, our way of driving on "automatic pilot." It is the fork in the road that leads us to pause and take stock. Who are we? Where do we belong? What direction should we take? What should we do? Why?
And then a dream appears.