The Tyranny of Or

When you’re young, you have big dreams. But there are so many things between you and accomplishing those dreams, that you’re a bit like a dog chasing a car: poor Rover has no idea what it would do if it actually caught the car.

Then you hit your 30s, and if you’re lucky, and aren’t paying for too many of the dumb decisions you made along the way, you find yourself faced with “Or”: you’ve caught the car, you’re in the driver’s seat now, and of the roads in front of you, you have no idea which one to aim at.

One of the first priorities that gets put down is your idealism. Turns out that from here, you’re probably not going to change the world. In fact, there are actually only a finite number of things you can do — if you want to do any of them well. If you’re careful and smart and hard working then you can take care of your family, hold down a decent job, and find some time to serve your church or your community. Forget changing the world, how about a friend or two? That is the tyranny of “or” — which of the above priorities will you trade for a social life?

Your only hope is that one of things you can focus on somehow lends itself to some of the other dreams or priorities you had. You see this all the time: a dad who once dreamed of being a baseball star, pushing his son to play baseball until the poor kid hates the game. The career man who sacrifices his marriage and relationship with his children, in the hopes that somehow his job will provide some bigger meaning…

“Or” always means that something will be sacrificed. I think that’s what it means to be an adult: knowing what to say no to. Even Bill Gates, a guy with virtually limitless resources, when he decided he wanted to do something with the money he’d amassed, had to leave his company struggling to stay relevant as he (mostly) left to focus on something else. He’s back to 30% time at Microsoft now — but that’s 30% of his time that he won’t be spending on his Foundation. Its a partial “or”, but its still an “or”.

Still, there’s something to that pattern. If you chase one direction to some degree of success, and you’re not too old to change, maybe you can pivot and fund a new thing at the end of an old. That’s what my parents did. A few decades of their careers bought close to a decade of ministry in their retirement. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t sacrifice.

God’s blessed Nicole and I with a lot of “or”. I did 10 years as a software developer before choosing a different “or” and moving into business. Most of my colleagues have MBAs — they chose that direction early. Some are still paying for it. Each pivot means some re-learning, some willingness to be humble. I enjoy learning, but when your focus is learning something new, you sacrifice leading others in what you already know.

This past summer God gave us a few more “ors”. All of them sounded good — and He didn’t seem to be leading us to one or another. After months of waiting and praying, we chose, for now, to stay our current course a little longer. The logical end of it provides resources that will open up even more choices.

More “or…” No more proof that any choice, now or then, will be the right one.

I don’t know if we’ve chosen right so far. Once you’re parents, you have to choose for little people too — children who can be hurt or impacted by your choices. We believe that our little people should have a parent at home for as long possible. That they should know God and learn that He loves them in a community of believers. That the whole wide world is our playground, a gift from that loving God, and that we should explore it and enjoy it and meet different kinds of people all over it. We believe that we should teach our kids how to be brave and kind and happy and strong, no matter the circumstance. That we should be hard working and careful stewards, but generous and sensitive to the needs of others, and not fail to act if we can meet a need.

I think we’re teaching them those things. I think we’ve chosen the right “ors”. And if it means we are sometimes lonely, usually missing someone, longing for something we’ve sacrificed, that I’m working long and often frustrating hours, while Nic is at home approaching the end of her saint-like patience by bedtime each day, that we’re serving even when we’re empty, and that we’re never quite sure where we’ll be living in 12 months… I think that means we’re adults. Doing the best we can with the tyranny of “or.”

We are grateful for the choices we have, knowing that not everyone gets to choose.

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One thought on “The Tyranny of Or

  1. Obligatory Kierkegaard quotation (that I’ve probably brought up before):

    “Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too; laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret it either way; laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both. Believe a woman, you will regret it; believe her not, you will also regret it; believe a woman or believe her not, you will regret it either way; believing a woman or not believing her, you will regret it both ways. Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you’ll regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.”

    Either/Or, Soren Kierkegaard

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