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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Discoveries and Decisions

In key respects, I was unprepared for the tasks of homelessness.

Homelessness requires constant adjustment, adaptation, and resourcefulness. Most people use these skills in small and various ways all the time, but the goal is routinization so that the details of daily life are on autopilot. With the establishment of routines, there is certainty, predictability, and more than a modicum of comfort.

Because of the extremity of homelessness, one never reaches that stage of autopilot for very long because daily life has to be built around other people's activities. For example, most Saturday afternoons there is no one around the Yacht Club, so I can get a shower at the washroom in the day rather than at night. However, on some Saturdays, if there are rowing competitions, the college kids have already filled up the parking lot.

Another example, after 9:00 a.m. on weekdays, the fire department shows up for exercises at the other parking lot I like to use. The idea of attempting my toilette with so many men around is paralyzing: I couldn't get out of my truck if it were on fire, though I would be in the right place. An alternate plan for where I go, what I do, and when is ineluctable.

In short, I have never made so many decisions in my life. I have never had to be so self-conscious and so thoughtful about everything I do every single day. Moreover, I made the personal discovery that I have avoided decision-making most of my life.

It may be a gender thing, if there is any excuse. I can say my father made most of the important decisions in the household in which I grew up. Consequently, there was some tacit understanding I absorbed to the effect that I was not going to be making major decisions. I would defer to someone else, presumably a male and presumably my husband. (Humph. That walk down the aisle never happened. I could sooner die in a plane crash, which is statistically next to impossible.)

Nonetheless, I am learning to make decisions; but I must tell you how difficult it is. Prior to homelessness, without knowing it, I was floating through this world, buffeted here and there as things happened, out of my control. I did not have control of my life because I did not take control as one does each and every time he decides. I did not recognize those critical moments in which one must decide or else become victim to circumstance. As I am very new at it, in the moment of deciding, a chasm opens up in front of me, my toes suddenly poised over the edge. The anxiety is that the ground beneath me may start to crumble, causing me to fall, no matter how I decide.

What scares me is the uncertainty: my conscious decision could turn out to be a very poor one. The consequences could be worse than had I just gone with the flow, entertained my old habit of letting the universe decide for me. I can barely stomach not knowing. I will let the need for a decision go for many days, sometimes weeks, even months if possible.

Let me make a relevant digression.

There was a time when I looked down upon men for the decisions they made. It seemed they, as a class, made poor decisions, utterly thoughtless, often immoral, certainly socially abhorrent ones. And, they often had company. They called upon the experts, held meetings with their peers, and leaned upon think tanks. They snubbed anyone else's input.

Now I know why.

Decisions are scary: absolutely no one can predict the outcome. It is a brave thing, I think now, to dare to stand up and decide. Men are accustomed to this, though not all of them are lucky with outcomes; and I have come to believe there is luck or fate involved. And it may make people feel a little better about making that decision to get as much information as possible, to have friends come forward and endorse it, to share the burden of proof, which, as the old proverb goes, is in the pudding, that is, in the outcome itself. Ugh.

To help me make difficult decisions, at times, I use the old tactic of the coin toss; and, no, this is not exactly the same thing as going with the flow. The difference is that I commit myself to abide by either way the coin falls and, furthermore, to any consequence. It helps to reduce a decision to simple steps that can be answered by a Yes or No. But this is only one strategy.

I call my friends. I also ask strangers for their opinion. It helps. At least, it helps me to better define myself and my circumstance, those parameters within which I live, by taking the issue outside myself to see how it looks on someone else. It is a way of getting perspective, perhaps old hat to those more accustomed to decision-making, but so new to me.

There is, of course, another fear associated with decision-making with which men have handily dealt --- the guilt and remorse over poor outcomes. I remember wondering why a court-martialed man, condemned to death by shooting, would require a firing squad. Sometimes the firing line was in front of the man, but often he would be surrounded. It was explained to me by a male friend; the need to distribute guilt was not obvious to me.

Perhaps that is what is so dreadful about personal decisions: there is no one with whom to share the blame when a decision, by its consequences, turns out to have been poor, indeed. For the lack of someone else with whom to share decisions, I am having to find ways to handle the feelings evoked by poor outcomes. Neutralizing judgments around consequences is yet another learning that has been imposed upon me by homelessness.

I am a long way from accepting decision-making as part of the human condition. I am even further away from enjoying it, if that is even possible.

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