Coping: When taking the ‘easy’ way out makes life more difficult
Contravening your principles because of others can make you feel trapped
“She wants to have children, which I’m delighted about,” my friend said, “but she insists we have to baptise them.” Photograph: Michael Coyne/National Geographic/Getty Images
We often talk about “easy” and “difficult” choices in life. Usually, the choices that seem easier in the moment are illusory. You decide to do something in an instant of weakness because it seems embarrassing or difficult to choose the option you know is better. Examples are capitulating to a toddler’s petulant tantrums because you want the screaming to stop, or giving in to pressure at work to do something you would rather not even though it will entangle you in a bad situation.
These moments of choosing the easier option are a series of decisions you must remake each day until you become increasingly uncomfortable and trapped in a situation that makes you feel you have lost your integrity. In the long run, the “easier” option is harder, and leads to an inauthentic life.
A few weeks ago I found myself in an odd conversation with a friend I have known for a long time. A scientist, he had recently finished a research project that had absorbed all his time for a number of years. He told me excitedly he had finally had the time to get out into the world, and had met the woman he thinks he would like to marry. Knowing how he had sacrificed his personal life for his work, I congratulated him heartily on finding the right person.
“She feels the same way, but there’s just one issue,” he said. “She wants to have children in the next couple of years, which I’m delighted about, but she insists that we would have to baptise them.”
I replied that this must be challenging – he’s an atheist – but that if he loved this woman he might have to make allowances for her religious beliefs. Perhaps they could try to reach a compromise.
“That’s just it,” he replied with a distressed expression. “She’s not religious at all. Her mother is. She says that she doesn’t believe in God but she wouldn’t want to upset her mother. She doesn’t see any harm in it, but I don’t believe in signing another person up for a lifetime membership in a belief system before they can consent.
“I’d always hoped to show my children all the options so that they would choose for themselves when they grew up. And it’s immoral to baptise a child just to get them into a school – it perpetuates the system that allows schools to deny places to non-Catholic children. I have a serious decision to make here. We’re so compatible and she makes me very happy, but I’m afraid that I’ll end up resenting her about this. What would you do?’
Eleanor Roosevelt popped into my head. I’d been reading her book You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life, which outlines her ideas on living a good life. One passage jumped back into my memory as I looked at my friend: “It’s your life – but only if you make it so. The standards by which you live must be your own standards, your own values, your own convictions in regard to what is right and wrong, what is true and false, what is important and what is trivial. When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.”
After our talk, that passage wouldn’t leave my mind. I guessed that if I told my friend what he knew but didn’t want to hear – that to consent to baptise his children would be to compromise his principles and might lead him to resent the woman he loved – he might not appreciate it, even though he had asked. I had my own decision to make: should I go with the easy answer or the authentic one?