Birthday 2006 (II)
Bill Long 5/14/06
Learning to Choose
The most important lesson I have learned in the last five years is the importance of identifying and selecting my desires. This seems like such a noncontroversial, obvious statement that it requires elaboration. The short of the matter was that I have lived most of my life without the sense that I had preferences to identify and choices to make. Oh, of course, I made choices every day of my life, but I don't think I really was aware of the fact that choice and preference was fundamental to being human. I never recall being asked as a child or youth what I wanted to do. Decisions were just made for me. I would have a paper route because my brother had one; I would do well in school and like math because that was what we did. I recall even remaining a math major at Brown University for two years even though I didn't particularly like math, I increasingly didn't know what I was doing and I had no friends or colleagues who "did" math with me.
I lived my married life without the sense that I was exercising my preferences and desires. Of course I was, every day, but I never dealt with the issue of learning how to prefer and to choose. In fact, it was not until I was divorced for about three years that I realized that I was living as if I didn't have preferences and choices. And so, beginning last year, I recall consciously thinking of the most basic things in life and making choices accordingly. Because I would be teaching most days at about 10 or 11 a.m., I could get up when I wanted. Even though I rose fairly early, I remember consciously making the choice whether to shave or eat breakfast first, whether to get dressed or sit down and write/think first. I asked myself, as it were, what I "felt" like doing. I tried to "listen" to myself as I asked myself questions about the ways I wanted to spend my days. To my delight, I began to be able to answer my most basic questions in life. I would do X rather than Y simply because I felt like doing it.
I still have a long way to go on this issue. I feel quite out of my league when I am with a friend in a restaurant choosing a menu item or a bottle of wine. In fact, as I said to one of my friends the other day, I could look at nearly any menu item and accept it for myself for dinner. That is, I still don't know why I might choose one item over another for dinner or one bottle of wine over another. I am also not sure of the mechanism that will unlock my comfort to choose when I am dealing with another individual. Over the past years I have simply deferred to others when we had a choice of what to do. Now I no longer want to do that, but I don't know precisely how to express my preferences without having the sense I am being disloyal to someone or that I am making a kind of "ultimatum" to the other person. I don't think I will be able to form a satisfactory intimate relationship until I become clearer on identifying and expressing my preferences.
Learning a Little About the Joy of Giving
I went on a cruise with a friend last month and learned more about giving and generosity than I had learned in years previous to that. It was a free cruise, a gift of a friend who had won a cruise for two through her work. We did the usual cruise stuff, but decided on a whim to play the final game of blackout Bingo on the Friday night before coming back to port. We bought a few Bingo cards, and lo and behold, she won the grand prize. I congratulated her, of course, but she insisted on giving me half of her winnings. I demurred at first--why should she give me some of her money, when we each had our cards to play? She insisted, however, and thus I was the recipient of a few hundred dollars...more than I ever expected.
So I went home with the money, wondering what I would do with it. Normally, if past days were any indication, I would just take the money and deposit it in my checking account, using it to pay for groceries or the bills. But this time I didn't. I knew my daughter's birthday was coming up, and I decided that she should receive it. I called her, and she was just hoping to be able to get a lap top computer to replace her huge desktop model. In her NYC apartment every square inch of extra space is important, and so she wanted to buy a smaller computer. I sent her the gift I had received, and it just covered the cost that she needed to complete the purchase of her computer. She was grateful, and I was wonderfully touched myself. I think for the first time in my life I truly enjoyed giving away a large sum of money to another person so that they could enjoy it. And then I thought that my atttitude towards this gift money, money I received as a generosity from a friend, might now affect the way I think of gifts in the future. Maybe I could learn to give without reluctance and, perhaps, even receive without embarrassment.
Putting it All Together
This, then, is what my birthday in 2006 has meant to me. It has been an occasion for me to give generously (with money I received as a gift), and an opportunity for me to embrace the importance of personal choice once again. But, this year, more than ever before, it has also been the occasion for five different events or kinds of "mini-celebrations" which are teaching me that, to turn Jesus' words almost on their head, it is as good to learn how to receive as it is to give. Let me list them quickly, with thanks to those who have brought them to me.
1. Dinner and an event with a friend Friday night in Portland, a friend whose card stressed her commitment to my learning to discover my preferences.
2. Attending the PAC-10 track meet championship in Eugene yesterday courtesy of my 19 year-old son.
3. Church this morning, where someone, for whatever reason, decided to give me the beautiful flowers that were atop the altar. I then will give them away to a friend later in the week.
4. I will treat myself, on my birthday tomorrow, to my tango class.
5. Dinner with a friend near Portland who is newly arrived in Oregon.
I can almost feel my choice mechanism clicking into place.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long