A Compass to Live By: What’s the Next Right Thing?

Sometimes the weight of life can bewilder you. As an individual who lives with a hyperactive mind, thoughts constantly spinning webs of ideas in my frontal lobe at all hours of the day and night, the effort required to make day-to-day decisions can be overwhelming. Oftentimes I’m too stressed or anxiety-riddled about the present to think about what comes next. I know a lot of people who operate under the same cognitive constraints, and I was beginning to wonder if there might be a simpler way to approach decision-making. Turns out, there is.

It’s a soulful method that has been around for some time, but I’ve only recently been apprised of it: when in extreme confusion, anxiety, despair, or any other psychological state that keeps you from being able to lug one foot in front of the other, a steadying course of action is to simply stop, breathe, and ask this question of yourself: What is the next right thing?

It could be to order the organic alternative to your usual highly-processed lunch of choice. It could be not honking when someone cuts you off on the freeway, simply letting them pass peaceably instead. It could be to call that friend whom you typically dodge because they talk too much—even though you know it’s because they’re lonely.

Untitled, Pruett Alexander Carter (American, 1891-1955). Magazine tearsheet, 2 color print, illustration. Courtesy of the Washington University Modern Graphic History Library, St. Louis.

Untitled, Pruett Alexander Carter (American, 1891-1955). Magazine tearsheet, 2 color print, illustration. Courtesy of the Washington University Modern Graphic History Library, St. Louis.

The “right” choice could be a lot of things. Most of the time, it’s not the easiest one.

Note as well that what’s right for you may not be what’s right for your best friend, or your parent, or the stranger walking next to you on the street. Each of us adhere to differing codes of ethics, and what we individually define as “right” or “wrong” may not coincide; such decisions are often influenced by factors like religion, culture, location, family tradition, professional or financial obligation, past experience, etc. Another factor that heavily influences our respective decision-making processes is that of our emotions.

A study in neuroscience conducted a few years ago found that when we each reach a point of decision, no matter what it concerns, our emotions are very important in the choosing. Even if we believe the choice we’re making is logical, the point of logic is arguably always based on our emotions. Without them, we simply can’t decide.

That being said, what we each experience emotionally on a daily basis will have a factor in what we deem to be the “right” or “wrong” choice. It’s wise to recognize this before making decisions, and if possible, sift through the emotional mire for the reasoning behind your choice. But, ultimately, it’s up to each of us to decide. It’s been a difficult understanding to come to, personally—the fact that the people I care about won’t always do what I believe to be right for them, simply because they may disagree with me on what’s “right,” due to a multitude of factors. And that’s okay. I believe that each of us are doing the best we can at any given moment. Still, it’s important to recognize that there’s always a better choice.

One of my favorite arguments, among the many, in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity is aptly aligned to this train of thinking, which one should consider, religious or not:

“We see only the results which a man's choices make out of his raw material…Most of the man's psychological makeup is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or worst out of this material, will stand naked.”

What Lewis is relaying is that each of us at birth are given our “raw material,” our physical being and the limitations it possesses, our character traits and natural abilities, our class status and the opportunities, or lack thereof, offered to us, but it is our choices, how we decide to live our lives, what we choose to do with our raw material, that make us the individuals, the souls, we become. At the end of it, no matter the raw material you’ve been given, you always have a choice when it comes to the person you are and the quality of life you lead. If such qualities are of interest to you, making the right choices, big or small, every day, is one sure way to defy your raw material in order to carve out a life set apart from the world’s lesser standards of being.

For me, that means choosing to keep writing these essays, no matter what I’m doing, every week, even if only one person reads them. Even if that one person is me. This is what I’ve chosen to do with my raw material, and I know that with every word written, I am making strides to a greater version of myself, one who seeks to help others. Or, at least, that’s the hope.

Now it’s your turn. Tell me, what’s your next right thing?

LivingAlex MeyerComment