Decisions, Decisions

by the Rev. Scott Walters


In a few weeks, our daughter Kate will graduate from college, and she’ll have some decisions to make. When I was her age my biggest decisions were about not entering the workforce in any way that actually required the expensive college degree I’d recently acquired. Decisions that also left time for a few adventures while my overhead expenses were liberatingly low.


One of those adventures was a sailing trip in the Albermarle Sound of North Carolina with the goal of reaching the Chesapeake Bay. My friend Dan Ryan and I made the trip shoulder to shoulder on the vinyl bench seat of Marshall Orcutt’s 1977 Chevrolet pickup, which was pulling the 23 foot O’Day sailboat that would be our home for the next 9 days. Marshall purchased the boat after selling his farm in Alma. He saw it in a classified ad and offered $3,900 for it because Jesus told him that’s how much he should offer.


Marshall talked to Jesus a lot, sometimes in tongues. I never got around to asking him whether Jesus ever told him to offer more than the asking price for something.


Well, if I know my daughter at all, neither Kate nor I am likely to say we’re making a decision because it’s what Jesus told us directly to do. And, if caught in a weak moment of impolite truthfulness, I might even say I think we’re more rational than Marshall. Which is a fairly silly thing to say, since, soon after our trip, on which the old Chevy consumed as many quarts of oil as it did gallons of gasoline, Marshall rebuilt its straight 6 engine in his barn. I’d say this is a project infinitely less tolerant of any illogic or illusions about the material world than anything you and I engage in regularly.


The other day, I heard an interview with Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli psychologist who won a Nobel prize in economics a few years ago. Professor Kahneman revolutionized the way we think about thinking. In a nutshell…or piston cylinder, he’s shown that the assumption that human beings are rational actors, upon which much of the modern field of economics is built, is nonsense. We’re obsessed with what he calls System 2 thinking, which is our conscious minds working out a problem. The mind that tries to solve a problem like 17 times 24. This is the rational mind we think is our true self, and we think it’s what we use to make important decisions.


But Kahneman says this is an illusion. For one thing, there’s no way our little limited minds can take in enough information to process it all consistently. There has to be inconsistency or irrationality in our thinking if we’re to do anything at all. True rationality would paralyze us. But he also says we’re driven much more forcefully by System 1 thinking, which is instinctive and operates unconsciously. If the arithmetic problem is 2 times 2, you don’t actually have to engage the rational mind. You know it before you know it. At least you do after you’ve spent enough time with numbers in your life.


I find all this captivating and relevant. And you’re either very kind or find it somewhat interesting as well if you’re still reading this blog post. But it seems like a tremendously important insight for people, especially people who want to live like Jesus would have us live, in a time like ours.


So, if you’re a recent graduate, the complexities of the world may be overwhelming if you assume your next life choice must be a perfectly rational one. Don’t worry. It won’t be, no matter what it is. Might as well get on the sailboat with Marshall.


Or, regarding the tragic violence erupting in Daniel Kahneman’s home country of Israel right now, his insights help dismantle the illusion that my position is rational while that of my enemy is not, and that we can resolve our struggles with clearer logic or more persuasive arguments. We can’t. Not as nations or as individuals. Any meaningful progress toward peace will have to reach the place in us where our trust lives. The place where we know before we know it, that we’re going to believe the treaty negotiator or the CDC or the voice of Jesus in our dreams.


Maybe all this scholarly research is just a recent way into the truth about a world Jesus taught us to navigate with humility about our own rightness, forgiveness for our enemies, and a posture of welcome toward strangers, whether people or ideas are what we’re finding incomprehensible or offensive right now.


Jesus hasn’t spoken any of these things to me directly. But if Daniel Kahneman and Marshall Orcutt and the gospels are to be trusted at all — and for reasons I don’t understand, I do trust all of them in meaningful ways — my certainty about the rationality of my views of what’s right is not what will set this world finally right. In fact, they’re almost certainly part of what keeps taking it apart.

14 thoughts on “Decisions, Decisions”

  1. Well crafted, Scott. I certainly agree that “any meaningful progress toward peace will have to reach the place in us where our trust lives,” but I’m not hopeful that place can be found. Perhaps it can but only with great difficulty. Probably impossible between the Israelis and Palestinian people and very doubtful in our nation. We seem ripped asunder.
    Keep writing. Your voice matters.

    1. I share your worry, Beau, about whether the seat of our trust is ultimately findable. But it also seems that we’re living at the end of a failed experiment in constructing a common life with no dependence on trust, as if rationality is sufficient. I think Kahneman would say our rationality is just as elusive.

  2. I agree wth the truth about peace too.
    We are so conflicted in ourselves…….
    Great writing and insight.
    Thank you

  3. Thanks for your writing a d wisdoms. So much to ponders I. Our world. Thankful for your insight and Jesus’ teachings

  4. I agree Scott, Thank you for these constant seeds. I agree with you here always erring on the side of us being able to listen and hope.

  5. Thanks to all for reading and responding. The best part of any blog post is the conversation that follows.

  6. Thank you Scott,
    I think about this subject a lot as I had some mini strokes a few years ago and found myself giving bizarre answers to ordinary questions. As I worked through it and started to recover I realized that my whole life I was quickly and easily giving answers from what I thought was my vast reading and great intellect but was in fact a function that spit out answers from somewhere in my head, based on who knows what. With the strokes all the pieces were scattered but the function was still active and answers were quick but very odd (I even got in an altercation with a coworker, still don’t know what I said that set him off) Thank you for sharing your insight….

  7. Kevin, your reflection here is moving, especially having someone close to me suffer (and recover fully) from a stroke. Even looking in from the outside, one realizes that the conscious mind is not the essence of the self, just one interesting, and maybe not as reliable as we think, part of it. Thanks for making this personal connection. I hope you’re well these days.

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