The other day my youngest (toddler) daughter hurt herself while playing outside. My wife and I weren’t immediately sure how bad she had hurt herself, but certain indications made us wonder if we needed urgent care or possibly a visit to the emergency room. But this decision was suddenly more complex than it was a few weeks ago.
The current pandemic has caused many of us to face the process of making decisions differently. What used to take little thought is now more complicated because our decisions are haunted by different priorities.
As a parent, when your child is hurt, a flood of emotions and reactivity happen almost instantaneously. You’re scooping them up and trying to discern what’s wrong. If it looks bad, you’re trying with all your might not to panic, so as not to exacerbate the experience for your child. And at the same time you’re trying to respond with appropriate care. Oftentimes, just a snuggle and some reassurance is all that’s required. At other times, the decision about appropriate care is not so clear.
Faced with waiting it out or pursuing immediate care, my wife and I also had to weigh whether or not we should endanger her (and ourselves) by visiting these spaces where others with COVID-19 might also be. Was her injury bad enough for us to consider facing an additional risk? It’s hard to keep a cool head when your child is hurt. It seems like it takes nearly as much energy not to panic as it does to respond properly to your child’s need.
Thankfully, my daughter’s injury didn’t require immediate care. But it took my wife and I longer to come to that conclusion than it would have a short time ago. Our decision was more difficult and more deliberate.
Decisions Can Be Complicated
Other decisions are complicated too. We’re hearing about possible meat shortages due to temporary closure of meat-processing plants. Does that mean we should run out and (over-)stock up? Perhaps meat seems more important than toilet paper, which was the panic-buy item of choice at the beginning of all this. We might think that we can’t store as much meat as toilet paper. Or we might think, “Wow, all that stocking up on toilet paper was pretty silly,” so we’re cautious about repeating the same pattern with meat. Yet, just the knowledge of a possible meat shortage might motivate us to rush out and buy whatever we can, while we can, just to be sure we have some if there’s actually a shortage.
I know a couple in their 60s, one of whom has a father that would be in the very high-risk category if he were to contract COVID-19 due to chronic respiratory issues. His wife who is a capable, yet elderly caregiver faces mounting challenges in helping her husband in daily routines. So this couple was torn about visiting to check in, and if needed, to help out. Two months ago, this decision would revolve around convenience and availability. “Is now a good time to come over? Great. We’ll see you soon.” Now however, it is a decision made with the knowledge that serious risk might be involved. Furthermore, the engagement had to be limited: they wore masks, they could not share a hug, each couple sat a safe distance from the other.
Making decisions in a time of pandemic, a time where decision making can easily lead to panic, confusion, and possibly grave mistakes (often unintentionally), is exhausting.
Overtaxed by a Pandemic
One of the reasons is because we are used to making decisions based on memory. What did we do last time we were in a situation like this? The answer provides significant guidance for what we will do this time. Yet, because we are in new territory, there is no memory to lean back on. Researchers say that decision making amid the pandemic has increased our cognitive load. That is, thinking about what to do in a lot of situations has become more taxing on our mental capacity.
We are prone, as Daniel Kahneman would say, to think “fast” about most things we have to make decisions about. But in our present moment, we are forced to make more decisions while thinking “slow.” Kahneman is one of the most well-known psychologists in the world. A Nobel Prize winner for his research on decision making, Kahneman equates “thinking fast” with something like automaticity.
To help us imagine it, consider your hands typing an email on a keyboard. Thinking fast, or automaticity, is the part of our thinking that silently notices we’ve mistyped a word and reacted by moving a finger to begin fixing the error before we are consciously aware of the movement itself. We just do it “without thinking” as it were (at least, not in a way we are consciously aware of). Similarly, putting your foot on the brake when you see brake lights in front of you is a “thinking fast” reaction. It just happens.
Thinking fast, if we imagine it as a kind of automaticity, means that there are many things for which we can reserve the deliberate part of our thinking. “Thinking slow” is what we do as we ponder the reflections on that podcast we’re listening to while we drive or go for a run. Thinking slow is what we do while our fingers are doing the typing. The automatic movement of our fingers creates a space for our mind to spend more energy on expressing the sentences we are trying to craft.
Thinking slow is what that couple was doing as they carefully decided to proceed with the visit, yet remaining cautious and mitigating risks as much as possible. My wife and I thought slow as we debated the best kind of care for our daughter.
Yet, when our cognitive load is too high, our automatic thinking is stressed and too much of our thinking is pushed into “thinking slow.” At the same time, thinking fast starts to become more error prone. Perhaps this is why we’ve seen panic-buying of meat and toilet paper, hand sanitizer and rubber gloves. Maybe that’s why we feel so exhausted making decisions about ordinary parts of our life (e.g., grocery shopping). The dramatic turn of events means we have to approach them in remarkably new ways.
Decision making is also challenged by how we prioritize things, as I noted above concerning our decision about care for our daughter. The philosopher James K. A. Smith has convincingly argued that “You are what you love, but you might not love what you think.” Sometimes it’s hard to know where our priorities lie and where our commitments rest. Our appetites are a great example. We might say to another person that we’re very health-conscious (and we might truly believe that we are), but when no one is looking, we’re thoughtlessly munching on potato chips or choosing the leftover piece of cake over eating an apple. (Guilty as charged!!)
Smith’s point is that our choices—what we actually decide to do—have a powerful capacity to reveal our true commitments—the things that we really love—and therefore, in a way, to reveal our identity. Nevertheless, since we often make these choices by “thinking fast,” grasping what is revealed by our choices requires some slow reflection.
Wisdom to Guide Us
If Smith is right and our priorities affect our choices, and if we all (presumably) want to make good choices, where can we find wisdom to guide us? What might be the best priorities that produce the best choices, the best decision making?
There’s some ancient wisdom that suggests we should “not lean on our own understanding.” (Proverbs 3.5) Rather, we are to place our trust elsewhere. Such a suggestion however, is challenging to a central commitment of our time, which recommends the very thing we ought to lean on is our own understanding, and even more, our own convictions and our own feelings. Look inside, we are constantly told. There, you will find truth and wisdom.
While teaching college students for most of the last decade, I noticed two things. First, they wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves and make an impact on the world. Second, by the time they were sitting in my courses, they had yet to receive any real guidance on how to do either of those things. As much as they wanted to believe the dominant exhortation to trust your feelings and treat your own inner voice as sacrosanct, they were starting to question that apparent wisdom. It didn’t really help them figure out how to aim their life, to leave a mark, to make an impact on others and the world.
They were beginning to recognize a contradiction. Making a difference might actually require focusing one’s attention externally, at the needs of others and the world, rather than trusting in one’s own feelings and leaning on one’s own understanding. Sitting in a college classroom, they were opening up to the possibility that wisdom, knowledge, truth and beauty might best be found outside themselves.
So I tried to help. I pointed them to the One who made the world. He is also their Creator. I suggested that perhaps he made them for a purpose. And we discussed what that purpose might be.
They were also interested in exemplars. Since a substantial amount of our learning comes through imitation, searching for exemplars is natural. So I introduced them to a guy whose name they recognized, but about whom they didn’t know much. His name is Jesus. He has famously been called the “man for others.”
The stories of Jesus in the Bible reveal him to be someone who submitted to an agenda other than his own. Instead, Jesus is an exemplar of one who would, as the Proverb cited above continues, “trust in the Lord with all his heart,” and who would “in all his ways acknowledge [the Lord].” (Proverbs 3.5-6) He said of himself that he came to do the will of [God] the Father. (John 6.38)
Because he submitted perfectly to the will of God the Father, the Bible attributes the greatest status to him—the Son of God. The Father’s agenda was to save all humanity through a sacrifice that paid for our sins. Jesus did that for us by giving his life. His death and subsequent resurrection changed history. Talk about leaving a mark on the world!
When my wife and I had to make that decision about our daughter, we were thankful that we didn’t have to lean entirely on our own understanding. Of course, we have always trusted in God. But God often provides ordinary ways to help us in life. In this case, we called my brother-in-law, who is a physician. He helped us to patiently consider the situation in order to make the best decision. His understanding, which we leaned on far more than our own, was helpful. Our daughter only had to endure a little soreness for a few days, but was otherwise fine.
There’s a promise attached to that ancient Proverb we’ve been discussing. It describes that anyone who would do what Jesus did—trusting in the Lord and acknowledging him—for that person “[the Lord] will make all your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3.7) Of course, the meaning of “straight” here isn’t necessarily “easy,” “happy,” or “successful.” It may be none of these. Nevertheless, this should not surprise us, especially if we are not to lean on our own understanding. After all, only our own understanding would likely expect “straight” to mean “easy,” “happy,” or “successful.”
Instead, it means entrusting yourself fully into the agenda of another, your Creator, who created you to be like his Son, the “man for others.” Were these to be our priorities, our decision making would more and more conform the ways of wisdom, as God promises in another place, saying, “the [proper reverence or acknowledgement] of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 1.7). This is true in times of pandemic, in times of panic, and in all other times.
Trust in him. Acknowledge him. Confess your sins and failures to him. Commit your decision making to him.
He will make your paths straight and lead you toward wisdom.