Monday, July 29, 2013

Dilemmas and Choices

One year when I was in college I shared an apartment with a girl I knew in high school, named Donna. She was studying to be a science teacher.  She listened to a lot of Simon and Garfunkel, played guitar, cooked marvelously, and made me laugh a lot.  She was harsh when it came to cleaning.  She would always yell at me and say, “Tom, you have to clean the toaster oven out once in awhile and remember to sweep behind the door in the bathroom too.” I think my wife, Karen, still appreciates that Donna taught me the right way to live with a woman.

After my wife and I got married, and were living in our first little flat in Chicago, Donna came to visit us for the night.  She was facing a dilemma.  She had met and started seriously dating a man, named David, who was an engineer at a major electronics firm.  David’s company had a policy that after you worked there for awhile they would send you wherever you wanted to go to graduate school.  David chose Berkely, out in California.  David asked Donna if she wanted to go with him and thus was the dilemma.  

That night, after going out for awhile, we sat up talking weighing pros and cons.  Donna slept that night on the futon in our second bedroom.  The walls in our apartment were very thin and I could tell Donna was struggling to make a decision; trying to decide if she loved this man enough to leave what she was doing and follow him across the country.  The next morning when we woke up Donna was gone.  There was just a note that said, “Thank you. Going to California.”  I'm sure she got a lot of input from a lot of people and we were not the people who finally helped her to decide but that choice worked out pretty good for Donna.  During their tenure out at Berkely they drove one day out to Lake Tahoe or Reno, I can’t remember which, and were married.  They now have two beautiful twins and they all are very happy.  We love it when we get to see them.

Not all dilemmas work out so idyllically.  When I was sixteen I started working in a bookstore and met a guy from another high school who became one of my best friends. At first he and I would just hang out at work and each others’ houses and then I introduced him to my circle of friends. He became very close to them as well.   He and I played off each other very well. Sometimes we would improvise live radio shows for our friends.  The year I took my sabbatical from college and traveled around, he would sometimes join me.  He counseled me when I was trying to decide what to do about my relationships with girls, especially Karen, when she was just my friend and not my girlfriend. He stood up in my wedding.

After he graduated college, started working on the floor at the stock exchange as a runner, and moved into the city, he started being very reckless.  His favorite author was Hunter S. Thompson and it seemed like he was trying to emulate that man’s life fueled with drugs and alcohol.  Whenever we would get together there would be some sort of strange or ugly incident.  One time at a party at my father’s house he climbed a tree on to the roof to get away from a girl he was dating but didn’t have the courage to break up with.  Another time he was nearly arrested for trying to take a bunch of beer out of a bar under his coat.  It got bad enough that at some point I felt I had to do something or he would go down a slippery slope to a really bad place.  I wasn’t sure what to do but I just knew I needed to do something.

One night there was a particularly bad incident where I had to intervene.  When Karen and I got home to our apartment there was a drunken message on our answering machine filled with vitriol and hate.  Karen asked me, “What are you going to do about this?”  I sighed and said, “I’m going to sit that boy down and have real long talk.” 

A few days later I invited him for coffee and told him that he needed to get his life together before things spiraled out of control.  I talked to him about what I thought the costs might be if he kept behaving the way he did.  I am not skilled or trained to do this kind of thing so it did not go well.  He was very defensive and said he could handle it.  He called me a hypocrite.  I finally said, “I am working to build a marriage; I am working hard to grow in my career; I am working hard on the side so Karen and I can buy a house. I don’t really need this in my life.  Either you get a handle on this or I’m not sure we can be friends anymore.”  He continued to behave the way he had and I continued to try to talk to him and try to get him help.  I constantly wrestled with what I should do.

Driving one night he got into trouble with the law and I thought that might be a wake up call but it wasn’t.   After Karen and I had amassed enough money, with a little help, to buy our pretty Victorian cottage in Roscoe Village, and start working on it, I didn’t see him very much. He would call all of the time but when he did it was all slurring words and random.  One day I was on a ladder working on a light fixture when he called.  Karen said “It’s him.”   I said, “Tell him I’m busy and can’t talk right now.” 

Later that night I was sitting at the picnic table my father had built for us as a housewarming gift.  Karen came out.  I think she could tell I was at a certain point.  She asked “Are you going to call him back?”  I said, “I don’t know.  I think I have to make a choice.  I’m not sure it’s the right choice. It’s not a choice I like but I just think I need to follow through on something.  Maybe it will teach him that there are consequences to his actions and behavior.”  She said “I know this hurts but he made a choice too.  At some point he has to take responsibility for his life.”  Thus in facing a dilemma, and in making a choice, I lost a dear friend.

I ran into him once when I was in business school.  He was looking to apply. I don’t know if I really contributed to it, but at some point he had got his life back together.  He started going back to church, met and married a girl, and was looking to continue his education so that he could do something more than being a runner his whole life.  He showed me pictures of his son.  He looked healthy and happy.  I don’t know what went into that dilemma but I am glad he made the choice to not continue to live his life the way he did in his wild years.  Aside from when I went to his father’s wake I haven’t seen or talked to him since, which makes me quite sad.  When you make choices there are always consequences…some good, some bad.
One time when I facing an ethical dilemma at work I called a former colleague who had always served as a mentor to me to ask him what he thought I should do.  He said “Tom, I think that you have to decide what’s right for you and the people you care about, and the rest will follow.”  I always liked that advice. 

Life is filled with dilemmas. Some of them are small, “Hmmm…Should I have the steak or the fish? “  Some of them are huge and life changing.  My wife will tell you I‘m not so good on the small ones but on the big ones I like to think about what my mentor said.  Sometimes my judgment gets cloudy and I need to talk to someone, but I try to listen mostly to my heart and to my conscience. Then I make a choice that feels right hoping indeed the rest will follow.  If it doesn’t…well, then there is a new dilemma and I start all over again.  I think that is how most of us do it or at least how we should.