I spent most of the past month struggling to decide between two potential “A” races for the spring. My ego wanted one and my heart wanted the other; it’s often been this way for me. I researched the courses, dredged through my training log for evidence of my capacity to perform, and crowdsourced experiences with both races. But no amount of information could sway me one way or the other for long. There was not a clear or perfect choice. So I didn’t decide. I waited.
Last week, one of the races sold out. By my lack of action, a decision was made for me. And I am as responsible for the consequences of my indecision as I would be for having made an affirmative choice.
The stakes are not always this low.
In what feels like a prior life, I sat on the ethics committee for a hospital. We were often called on to mediate tensions between the treatment team and a patient’s loved ones as incapacitated patients neared the end of life. This involved counseling the patient’s loved ones on the potential benefits and burdens of some intensely value-laden decisions – decisions like whether to withhold or withdraw tube feeding in a patient with advanced dementia or to discontinue ventilator support for a patient with no detectable brain activity. There were often conflicts among those tasked with making these decisions. Conflicts led to delays.
We watched the same narrative play out over and over again – the paralytic distress of would-be decisionmakers defaulted the patient’s care to the status quo, a holding pattern with unintended (and usually unwanted) results. Case study after case study in human indecision. There was the unconscious and terminally ill patient whose family failed to reach a consensus to withdraw her feeding tube; she died of aspiration pneumonia from the tube rather than her disease. There were others who never made clear their wishes around CPR and so remained “full code” in the face of abject futility – terminal cancer patients denied a peaceful death by indecision. “Remember,” offered a colleague in particularly fraught cases, “not deciding is its own decision, and it carries its own consequences.”
I am not casting judgment on the struggle of these families in the face of difficult circumstances. In many cases, they had not yet processed the reality of the situation they were facing – that their loved one was dying, that there was no choice they could make that could prevent that dying, and that prolonging the inevitable could make the loss even more difficult. When faced with a situation in which there is no perfect decision, it sometimes feels easier to make no decision at all – as if doing nothing absolves us of responsibility for the consequences of making a choice. Sometimes making a difficult decision feels like giving up – like abandoning hope for a miracle.
But we can’t hold out hope for a miracle to save us from making difficult choices. My decision on which race to target this spring is objectively easier than the decision to sign a DNR for Grandma, but the reasons behind the stalling are similar – inability to reckon with reality, bias towards inaction, and hope that another option will present itself. I avoided an honest assessment of the situation – that there is no perfect race and that neither choice came with any guarantees. By not committing to a race, I felt like I was keeping my options open, including the delusional belief that another option – a miracle option – may present itself. In reality, I limited my options by allowing one race to sell out. The consequences of not deciding precluded my ability to make an affirmative choice.
I often hear from athletes that are stuck perseverating on decisions – decisions to start training, set a big goal, or hire a coach. They’re waiting on the perfect time to start, permission to dream, or a program that promises a miracle. They wait for months or years, full of intention but stuck in indecision. And while they wait, they effectively decide to do nothing.
If that resonates with any area of your life, I challenge you to take an honest assessment of your personal reality and the options available to you. Interrogate your own indecision and to decide to take action now. Your failure to act is its own choice with its own unintended and unwanted consequences. Choosing imperfect action over inaction is never an abandonment of hope. The miracle is in committing; the miracle is in the work.