17 Dec 2017 17:01 IST

Decisions, decisions, decisions

Some can make them in the snap of a finger, while others dither and dather

There’s a story about Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi in DG Tendulkar’s 10-volume work, Mahatma, which I often recall. This was at the height of the freedom struggle, when every step political leaders took had momentous consequences. Nehru was at Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to consult with Bapu about various things. I don’t remember what exactly was being discussed. However, what I do remember is that he asked Bapu about a particular decision and wanted directions on how to proceed with it. Gandhiji is supposed to have said something like no, we won’t do that. But we had decided just the other day, Nehru is said to have protested. Maybe Gandhiji just smiled. That kind of drove Nehru up the wall (it would, most of us!). But why? Nehru asked in frustration. I changed my mind, Bapu replied. *&@#!)(*#&!^$ was Nehru’s response (in his head, that is). That simple.

Then, he went along with Bapu. That’s simple too.

Forced decisions

Life’s a series of choices. We know that only too well, and we’ve often referred to it in these columns. At every point we make decisions, we’re forced to make decisions. This shirt or that one? This tattoo or that one? Right turn or left? Defend or hit for a six? Spell with s, spell with z? This school or that school? This girl? That boy? This name? That job? This house? To buy or not to buy?

No wonder we understand how poor Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, felt. Shakespeare phrases his dilemma brilliantly in Act 3, Scene 1 of his play, Hamlet:

“To be, or not to be? That is the question—

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And, by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—

No more—and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wished! To die, to sleep.

To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause. There’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.”

Now, Hamlet suffered from manic depression. So his question is an extreme one: whether to live or die. There are times in our lives too when we have to make extreme decisions, they may be life-changing. A lot of the times though they may seem larger than life at that moment, and only in that moment. Still, they are difficult to make.

Taking chances

Each one is wired differently. Some of us don’t worry too much: if we have to decide on something, snap, we do it, and that’s it. This shirt or that shirt? That shirt! Next! This turn or that turn? This turn! Move! Some of us weigh the pros and cons in a calm, collected manner, tot up the score and then decide — one way or the other and not necessarily in the direction of the majority pros count. That happens too! And some of us waffle away, waffle away, for hours, days, weeks, months… Some of us remain undecided all our lives.

As Mark Twain famously put it: “I must have a prodigious amount of mind; it takes me as much as a week, sometimes, to make it up!”

But it’s all linked to who we are: impetuous, introverted, impulsive, careful, caring, concerned, daring, adventurous, extroverted, expressive… Usually it’s a combo pack, weighted down in one, other or still other favour depending upon what’s ruling mind and make-up. Therefore, whether we take snap decisions, whether we reflect, or whether we waffle around, it doesn’t matter. We can only be you. In any case, the decision finally finds us, even if we cannot see the light that easily or swiftly.

As the writer Elizabeth Gilbert said somewhere, “The problem, simply put, is that we cannot choose everything simultaneously. So we live in danger of being paralyzed by indecision, terrified that every choice might be the wrong choice.” That’s true. There’s every possibility of the choice we make not working for you. But that’s a chance we take. Life is full of taking chances. Life is itself a chance. After all, we had no say in being born, to whom we were born, where we were born and up until when we were old enough, we probably had little say in how we lived the early years of our lives. It’s all circumstance, and what we make of circumstances.

Heat of the moment

It’s true that we will never know where the other road would have led — unless of course we arrived at the same fork again and took that road this time. A lot of the time, we have the opportunity to take another road if one road doesn’t lead us where we want to go. Sometimes, of course, there’s no looking back. But at all times, we must believe in ourselves and our decisions. We must give our choices a chance to fulfill themselves, or reveal themselves. Only then will we know for sure about what’s right, what’s not, what’s possible and what further changes are called for.

The important thing to remember is that no matter what we have a choice, and we can and must exercise that choice. We musn’t be like Sylvia Plath, the poet, who wrote in The Bell Jar: “I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

People often counsel that decisions should not be made in the heat of the moment. But the strange thing is, sometimes we are able to decide only when pushed into the fire.

What does that say about making decisions calmly?