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Making Good Choices:
A Process to Practice

by Chalise Miner

Amy kept having the same dream. Night after night she dreamed that her bed, her floor, her whole room, was covered with examinations, want ads and college catalogs. All she could do was tiptoe through the stacks, yelling for help. Her friends found it a laughable picture, but for Amy it was a nightmare!

Dan admitted to a similar problem, telling about the dead-end phone conversations he and Rachel had carried on all summer. Even his younger brother teased him, he said, about how indecisive they sounded. "Hi! Whatcha doin'?" he'd mock:

"Nuthin'."

"Wanna do somethin'?"

"Sure!"

"What?"

"I dunno. What'll we do?"

"I dunno. What do you wanna do?"

Everyone was laughing by the time Dan finished, but mostly because they had memories of conversations like that themselves.

The group had been friends since grade school. Their exchange began while trying to decide if they might go to a movie together. If they did, which one would it be? Amy remained undecided and Susan, teasingly, called her "C.D." It wasn't the first time! "C.D." was short for "Can't Decide!"

Amy? It was Amy who had been called a strong-willed baby, a determined toddler. Most of this group still remembered her as the self-confident Girl Scout who had decided to sell 200 boxes of cookies and had exceeded her own goal. Why, she asked, had her feelings of sureness about life abandoned her when she left grade school? Why did so many things now demand immediate answers? Why, she wondered sadly, was "C.D." a name that fit?

Can't Decide?

Have you ever felt like "Can't Decide" could be your nickname? Do you ever have nightmares like Amy's? Phone calls like Dan and Rachel's? If so, you're a perfectly normal teen!

The "Can't Decides" often move in on teenagers because the whole world is suddenly opening its doors. You now make thousands of decisions for yourself. Adults in your life are starting to step back at the very times they used to step in and tell you what to do. They're starting to watch how you handle things. They more often allow for your opinions. Finally, you say, they see how much I know! But it can be paralyzing! What if the path you pick is unpopular or unacceptable to your friends and family? What if you make a big mistake?

Every day is packed with decisions, from the ones that won't matter in a minute or two, to the ones that will make a difference forever. What shall we do tonight? What shall I wear? Who shall I ask to the prom? What kind of summer job do I want? Shall I go steady with Mike? What's my stand on drugs? Should I go to college? Through big and small decisions like these, you're asking yourself daily, "Who am I?" Answers aren't so simple.

Coming down on a certain side of things can be an emotionally painful part of growing up. It isn't easy to start out on your own course, when the stakes are so obviously high in the adult arena you're about to enter. It's understandable if you sometimes feel you'd like to be a spectator in life, having someone else make your big decisions, while you stand in the wings and see how things turn out. It almost makes sense to take a watch-and-see, whatever-happens-happens attitude. So many answers are needed so quickly! Why not just flip a coin?

Taking responsibility for your life's direction and actively making decisions about your goals and needs is a big job. The biblical Letter of James was written to people who were having trouble doing just that. The author of that letter saw that important decisions needed to be made in an attitude of faith. Wisdom to make good decisions, he felt, would be given to those who asked for it. On the other hand, people who couldn't make a decision seemed to have "two minds" and were unstable. This, he thought, wasn't necessary for anyone with faith in the Lord.

Who Should Decide?

Your parents have years of experience and generally care about your well-being. As you shift from letting them make decisions for your life, it's tempting to simply transfer the role to your friends. Letting friends decide for you may seem easy, but it means that sometimes you'll be going places you don't necessarily enjoy. It can mean using up precious hours of your life in ways you may not find personally fulfilling. It can mean being bored, picking nothing, learning nothing, doing nothing. It means leaving the role of leader or "decider" to someone else (sometimes anyone else) and that could be someone less mature than yourself, even someone with bad or destructive ideas.

The clearer your concept is of who you are and what you really want, the easier it will be to make personal decisions. No one else sees the world exactly as you do and no one has exactly the same interests and talents. With friends, compromise is required but it's important that the compromising be done by everyone involved.

Knowing yourself well is a lifetime task, but start now to ask the questions this knowledge requires. Are you a sympathetic listener? Then you may choose to spend time listening to friends, maybe even giving out a bit of advice. Perhaps you'll decide to enter a "helping" profession. Are you a whiz at computers? A person who loves the out-of-doors? Are you family-oriented? A loner? Good at music? Art? Are you a good person who not only likes other people but suspects there's a plan behind human existence? You may decide to take some time out now and then to think over life's puzzles, to pray, to find ways to make the world a better place. What's important is to learn to make decisions consistent with who you really are.

Xavier, for instance, played guitar. It meant far more to him than just taking lessons and occasionally playing at a dance or concert. He began to see himself pursuing a career in music. Creating new songs was the best part of every day. On weekends, Xavier often chose to work on his music. Sometimes he felt guilty, as though he wasn't a faithful friend. He was also afraid of being rejected or ridiculed. He considered lying, saying that his parents wouldn't let him go out. Finally Xavier leveled with his crowd. "I wish I could do two things at once," he said, "but since I can't, I'm going to stay home more often and work on my music."

The group was surprised. Some tested the strength of his decision. Others joked about his being a rock star. In the end, when he stuck by his choice, most were true friends. They knew his music was important to him. Later a friend with a growing interest in languages admitted that Xavier had opened the door for others in the group to begin making some independent choices, too. Jeanne spent the summer abroad in an exciting language program.

Because Xavier and Jeanne were starting to see a clearer picture of who they were and who they were becoming, the decision to give more time to their special interests was easy. In time it became easier for their friends to respect their interests as well.

Indecisive days can be truly frustrating, but they do strike all of us, no matter what our age, from time to time. With practice and belief in yourself, you can learn to be more decisive, more in control of your days and your life.

Six Keys to Try in a Deadlock

Amy, like many adolescents, worried that she'd left behind her confident self when she left childhood. She did not realize that within her there still was the strong, faithful core that once had been the willful baby, the determined toddler, the decisive young person. No matter how difficult you now find decision-making, you can get in touch with that core, the center of yourself, the true you, the you who used to know what to do! Decision-making need not be left to "Can't decide," "Whatever happens, happens!" or the flip of a coin.

1. Break problems down. Deal with one decision at a time. When you are presented with several choices, and you try to weigh them in your mind, your brain can switch into "overload" like a 3-1/2-hp. lawn mower balking at two weeks' growth of wet grass. Just like dividing your studying or room cleaning into small, tolerable chunks, the easiest approach to decision-making is to break things down to one choice at a time. Give your problem a name.

Example: My problem is: "I want to pick a fashionable prom dress without a price tag to match." "I have to choose a college by spring break." "I need a way to say 'Absolutely No!' to Gary before he pushes me into saying 'Yes.'"

Use simple words and write your problem down. Anything you can name and put in a sentence, you can begin to solve!

2. Gather information. It is within your right to pin down parents, teachers, employers and friends to get necessary information. You can be nice, but you don't have to feel shy about doing this. Asking questions shows that you are a person with plans and goals of your own and no longer a kid. People will come to respect you as someone who has obligations and needs like their own.

Examples: You want to buy a stereo but you're short on money. Your parents want the house painted. You might say: "Could I earn the money I need by scraping, sanding, priming and painting the house?" To your teacher you might say: "I can come early for practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays and still get my studies done. That's as much time as I can sacrifice. Is there any problem with that?" To an employer: "I'd like the job, but how many Saturdays would I need to work? I'm also going out for football." To friends: "Who's going to be at the party? I'm going somewhere else if Bill and his booze are coming."

When you're close to knowing what you want to do, you may want to ask the opinion of your parents or friends whom you respect. Because everyone likes his or her own ideas, be aware that some advisers get their feelings hurt when their suggestions aren't followed. You can show appreciation for the opinions of others without obligating yourself to follow their advice. In the end, opinions are like noses. Everyone has one, but you'll probably like some better than others.

3. Move off dead center. Believing firmly that your strong inner core already knows what you want to do on a given matter, even if the outer you isn't sure, try this: Think how you react when someone tells you something that you must do! Right away you can think of reasons why you don't want to do it, can't you? It works the same when you're in deadlock. When you pick a decision from several possibilities and tell yourself that decision "A" (for example) is what you must do, a surprising thing happens. Without the confusion of several plans bouncing about, your brain takes readings of your truest feelings and tells you all the reasons why plan "A" is or is not a good plan.

Try this on yourself. Or when you have a friend who's undecided about something, try what Susan did to get Amy to decide about the movie. When Amy couldn't decide whether she wanted to go to the movie, to her sister's basketball game or stay home to bake cookies, Susan said, "Right! Then I'll pick you up at six for the movie!" (It's important to be very definite here!) "No!" Amy shot back. "We can go to a movie any time. Let's go to the game!" Suddenly, without "overload," she knew what she wanted to do.

4. Try God. When a decision must be made, it often comes in confusion. Talking to another person about some things may seem impossible or embarrassing. When it feels like no one could understand, there is still one who will—God. You say you haven't discussed anything with God lately?

Amazingly, our God doesn't pout and refuse to answer the door. Granted, it takes a bit of faith, and practice, to see divine guidance in the working-out of your plans, but God is there. If you find it difficult to talk to God, remember your fears and concerns are understood before you even try to explain. Don't worry about having the right words. Ramble if you want and repeat yourself. God doesn't mind. Nor does your creator quit listening because you haven't been praying much.

Example: "O.K., Lord, you see this mess... Larry wants me to date only him, but I like Jim too... There're Suzie's feelings to consider... Help me to know my own mind. Help me to do the right thing..." The psalmist David used these words: "Probe me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts; see if my way is crooked." Talking to God does two things: It starts you zeroing in on the problem, getting your true feelings out, and it opens you up to feel God's gentle nudgings.

5. Let go and learn. When you have asked God to be a part of your decision and you've looked at your problem in these ways, it's time to proceed with the plan that feels right and to be ready to learn from its outcome. Allow yourself the luxury of feeling good about having made the best decision you know how to make. Begin, even with small doubts, to go forward, putting your plans into action, standing behind what you've set into motion and claiming responsibility for it.

This is not to say that once a decision is made you can never change your mind. Sometimes, when you would not be inconveniencing someone or letting them down in a big way, you can. Stay on the alert as you put your plan into action. If you begin to feel you are making a mistake and if your course is still correctable, do not feel embarrassed to admit the mistake and say that you'd like to change your mind.

6. Don't dwell in the past. Every living person leaves a trail of little and big mistakes. You will make mistakes too. But God is Love. Love does not want you to be immobilized by things you've done in the past. When you have made a bad decision, and it is positively too late to do anything about it, you must live with the mistake and accept the embarrassment. Mistakes can hurt, but not forever.

Ask forgiveness of anyone you may have hurt and ask for God's help and forgiveness. Then, forgive yourself!

Finding Your Path

When you feel that you've made your peace with God and yourself, don't let anyone continue to send you on an extended guilt trip, and don't keep knocking yourself. You can help others, especially parents, to drop the subject of your poor decision if you are brave enough to admit: "I goofed! I've learned from that mistake!" What parents fear, beneath their sometimes gruff exterior, is that you haven't learned and will repeat a mistake at a later date.

Building confidence in decision-making and sharing your thinking and decisions with others takes time. Amy and Dan, with help from their friends, slowly came to rely on the thread of knowledge and truth within them. They began to have greater trust in their decision-making ability. They learned how to turn six keys to get out of deadlock.

For her times of greatest stress and lowest self-confidence, Amy still keeps a little note which the group wrote to her. She taped it to her bathroom mirror where she could read it whenever papers or plans seem to be burying her. The note says: "Amy—You are a good person! You can make good decisions."

If decision-making is a difficult task for you at this time in your life, pin a similar message up where you'll see it every day. Read it! Believe it! Begin to trust yourself and go forward. You are a child of God, and have every right to seek and to find your path in the universe.

Chalise Miner is a Kansas City-based freelance writer who often writes articles dealing with home and heart issues. She is a former teacher and codirector of Birthright, a crisis pregnancy center. She is married and the mother of two teens.

Youth Update advisers who previewed this issue, suggested important changes and asked questions of the author are Andrew "Abdul" Carranza, 16; Yvonne Molina, 16; Nancy Palermo, 16; and Brian Redden, 16. Yvonne and Brian are members of St. Savior Parish, Rossmoyne, Ohio, Abdul is from Good Shepherd Parish, Cincinnati, while Nancy attends St. Philip Parish in Morrow, Ohio.

Q.

Are you sure everyone has a "strong, inner core" to support them in difficult decisions? I think I know people who don't.

A.

Perhaps you know people who don't use their strong inner core, who don't look at their options thoughtfully, who seem to make one bad decision after another, who don't respond to their inner sense of direction. I know some too, and they aren't all teens! I believe that teenagers have some special gifts. You have tremendous strength. You dare to question. You are capable of great honesty. Every human person has an inner core, a hook-up and a claim to knowledge and strength. The problem is, sometimes we allow the core to get buried, become lazy or dishonest.

Q.

Not all parents are glad to have their children making decisions. How can teenagers help their parents to accept that they are growing up?

A.

I've never known a parent who did not want his or her teen to make decisions—thought-out decisions. Perhaps you're really talking about communication. Most teens think through their decisions. They just don't share their thinking.

It's understandable. No one likes to have plans laughed at or poked full of holes before they're finalized. Parents, however, remember disastrous, or at least humorous, decisions you've made in the past, such as foolish purchases or dangerous actions. Parents fear that you don't have all the facts and don't have enough experience to foresee problems with possible decisions. Sometimes you don't. You can help your parents to accept your growing up by sharing your thinking, by talking about your plans. Try inviting your parents to listen to your ideas. Ask them to save their suggestions until you have finished speaking and to try not to lecture. Tell them you aren't deciding anything yet. Let them know you are thinking things over critically. Don't back away at the first sign of conflict. Conflict is inevitable, but good conversations with a parent are worth the risk.

Q.

How can I involve God in making decisions when God doesn't have anything to say? I find it hard to believe that this really helps.

A.

I understand your disbelief. I was 25, a young mother, angry and alone, before I asked God directly: "God, give me an answer! Are you there or aren't you? If you're doing nothing but sitting up there looking down, what earthly good are you to me? I have to know!"

God doesn't speak out of the clouds, like in an old movie, but if you have never called on God, desperate for belief, begging for a message so clear that you couldn't miss it, then you really can't say, "God has no answers for me." I urge you to try it—not just once, not half-heartedly. When you sincerely ask, God can find ways to speak to your heart. Perhaps God has more to say than you are hearing.

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