Beginning, Middle and End

This weekend a step was taken towards parental happiness: my son helped mow the lawn.  Even though it was only the push mower and he only cut about 300 square yards of the nearly 4 acres I have to mow, I already have visions of graduating from labor to management: sipping mohitos from my hammock while my progeny labors in the fields.  As I imagine my future summers of leisure, one question keeps bothering me: why did I wait so long to show him how to use the mower and how to mow?
There is a simple answer – with profound implications: it was just easier to do it myself.  What took me 30 minutes to show him how to do, I normally got done in 2-3 minutes.  Fire up the mower, get into the few places I can’t get to with my Dixie Chopper (worlds best zero turn, BTW), put the mower back in the workshop.  So the answer seems to be that I have been putting off lazy Sundays…because I was too lazy?!?  Maybe more accurately I have been putting off a better future for a better now.  Why might that be?  I think the answer lies in beginnings, middles and ends and more specifically a seemingly modern obsession with the middle.
By beginnings I mean basic values.  When was the last time you really sat down and looked at the values that guide how you make decisions and live your life?  I know what you are thinking: how in the world is teaching my son to mow the lawn a values based action?  Simple  I was valuing the ease of my current day more than my future days.  I valued getting the job done now more than teaching my son how to do it, which besides freeing up some of my time will teach him all kinds of lessons (the value of hard work, maintaining your tools, don’t put your feet under lawn mowers…).  Although I have blogged before about the value of living in the moment, there are times when taking a step back and thinking about the big picture and specifically about the values that drive how you make decisions.  This is not about trying to change the past, but rather ensuring that you know where you are going and can make the right decisions, in the moment, to get you there.
I think that a lot of the problems we see today can be traced back to not having a clear and consistent set of values.  And by consistent, I don’t mean that everyone’s has to be the same – in fact that would be terrible.  I simply mean that whatever it is that you value, it has to be  logically consistent with itself.  I can’t, for example, value eating every cheesecake I see and staying in shape.  That’s logically inconsistent.  I am going to spend a little time each month thinking about what I value and trying to make sure that the values themselves are internally consistent.  When was the last time you did something like that?
So if values are the beginnings, what’s the middle?  By middles I mean decisions that you make.  There is what I consider the “primary” decision we make each day, hour, minute, second: what we decide to pay attention to.  There there are the the actual decisions themselves: go to work?  Answer the phone? Teach your son how to mow the grass?  Making each of these decisions shouldn’t require hours of existential navel gazing, rather if you have your values well understood it will simply be a matter of applying judgement to figure out which of the available options is most aligned with your values.
Of the three (beginnings, middles and ends) the middle, or decisions, are the easiest.  Because they happen even if we don’t actually do anything.  And that’s actually the trap here: as Geddy Lee once sang “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”  Sometimes decision by default is an OK outcome – it just happens to line up with your values.  But odds are, over time, that most deferred decisions will lead you away from your values.  I am going to do my best to be an active participant in the decisions I am given the opportunity to make.  I think this is what C. S. Lewis was trying to point out in his discussion about past, present and future in the Screwtape Letters.
So that leaves ends.  By ends I mean the outcomes, or more appropriately the consequences of our actions.  In my mowing story, I was only seeing the immediate consequences (it taking me more time to show him vs. just doing it myself) and hadn’t thought a few steps into the future (you know, the future with hammocks and cocktails…oh yeah, and him learning to be more responsible and stuff).  Far too often I find myself thinking about the immediate rather than the long term.  I am playing chess using the rules of checkers, which I am pretty sure will get you beat (either by losing or actually getting hit by the person you are playing for being so dumb).
Thinking about the consequences of your actions is hard, especially when you try to think about the long term consequences.  And for most people long term = anything more than 5 minutes from now.  This stems from the very simple fact that the future is unknown and the immediate results of the decisions we make go off into the chaos known as life to interact with the results of everyone else’s decisions to produce who knows what long term.  That doesn’t get us off the hook though.  As we amass experience, we can get pretty good at guessing what the long term consequences are to our decisions.  A child learns early on to decide that they shouldn’t touch hot things or they will get burned.  An adult learns to do simple preventive maintenance on their vehicles or else they will get stranded.  Too many of us willfully ignore consequences when we are making decisions.  Lot’s of things are to blame here – from helicopter parenting to the ever growing welfare state (which BTW are the same phenomena simply at different scale…but that’s another post), but none of them change the fact that we all make lower quality decisions when we are unaware, willfully or not, of the consequences.  Taking a good guess about what might happen beyond the next 5 minutes has to be part of my approach as well.
All this from finally reaching my son to mow the grass.  Just imagine the posts that will come when I teach him how to shave, drive a car and change the oil.






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