Smile Politely

Small choices, big consequences

Recently the News Gazette reported that a man was sentenced to ten years in prison for spitting on a correctional officer at the Champaign County Jail. The “3 strikes you’re out” law mandated the stiff penalty for his action. He did some very very bad things in the past, so that little choice he made to spit cost him much more than it would have in a different context.

The newspaper article reminded me of my fascination with the consequences of the little thoughts we have. Choices we make that seem insignificant at the time, but lead to huge unexpected consequences. And it’s not just the ones that lead to negative consequences like prison that I think about. It’s also the ones that lead to wonderful new opportunities, connections and achievements.

Just this week I learned about a friend who volunteers at a soup kitchen in the Mississippi Delta. He showed up there recently, anxious to help, willing to do even the most menial of tasks. It seemed there was nothing for him to do, and he was growing frustrated after making at least two requests for marching orders that went unanswered. So he made what I’m sure he considered to be a small insignificant decision. He chose to ask one more time instead of going home frustrated. “Is there anything I can do today to help?” A staff person said “OK, you can go over there and open some cans of tomatoes”. So he did, and shortly after, some people walked in that he recognized from a previous contact with them. As they talked, he realized that they could play a crucial role in another social justice project some close friends of his were launching. In the future, he will look back and see how his seemingly small choice to ask one more time was pivotal in how things developed into something very significant.

An inmate decides to spit. A friend decides to speak. Tiny choices; but no — they were life changing.

This is all about our awareness of our personal context and perspective. When applied to the shared perspective of our collective space within a sub-culture, the Germans call it “Zeitgeist”.

This context of the moments of our lives; our individual “Zeitgeist,” is a constantly changing thing. It’s dynamic, not static. More like lava than granite.

At times, like when we are bored or terrified, our personal milieu feels frozen, cold and solid as ice. That must be how it feels to the nursing home residents who sit in their wheelchairs listening to me play piano for them once a month. To them it must feel like nothing matters anymore, nothing they do or think or decide will have much connection with anything else, especially anything significant; a sense of powerlessness and isolation.

It is during those moments or seasons that we are in danger of embracing either of two bad conclusions. One being that nothing matters, the other that we can afford to be careless. Nothing matters, so why decide anything, why think anything, why expect that we could ever be anything but powerless? Or, what the heck, I’ll do this crazy thing, this reckless thing; I’ll spit on the correctional officer.

So, there are those boring times, frozen in a block of static Zeitgeist. But there are other seasons too. Seasons with a sense of unlimited possibility and manic megalomania. “I’m the Master of the Universe,” “What I decide is intrinsically connected with powerful outcomes.” It is not hard to see the potential dangers of making decisions in that context also.

Being healthy and self aware involves finding a more balanced place. A place where we have a realistic understanding of the significance of our decisions. A perspective that includes the awareness that sometimes we just never know what the consequences of our thoughts might be.

Those nursing home residents who listen to my piano music are the beneficiaries (or captive victims) of one of my own little thoughts. Six years ago while TV channel surfing one day I stumbled upon a concert performance by Rufus Wainwright, a flamboyant pianist/singer/songwriter. I had never heard of him. He didn’t mean to do it, but like a soul burglar, he burst into my personal Zeitgeist and triggered a major flow of life-changing dynamic lava. As I watched him, I was mesmerized by his music. I was a closet accordionist — a recovering accordionist who had long ago laid the squeeze box down after many years in childhood enduring the well intended jabs and playful but ignorant polka jokes. Americans over 40 hear the word “accordion” and think “Lawrence Welk.” Major buzz kill for hipsters. The polar opposite of Elvis. Lawrence the culture narc. Europeans know better than to dismiss the accordion, but that not relevant to my story right now.

Rufus triggered a little thought in me. “I don’t want to be 80 years old one day and regret that I did not try to become a great pianist.” You see, It was always the piano that I loved, but I didn’t play it. Same right hand keyboard skills, but completely different left hand ones. Besides, as the middle child between 2 excellent pianist sisters, I knew better than to try to wander onto that playground. But Rufus prevailed.

I began to teach myself to play the piano, hoping my left hand would come to know what the right hand was doing. It worked. WIth the help of a piano teacher/guru I began not only to play better, but to compose music that was pretty good. Now six years later with 2 CD’s of original music under my belt. I know all about the importance of little decisions.

Now I’m so happy I could spit. But, be assured that if it’s over my deck railing I let one loose, I will make sure to aim clear of the two guys working nearby on my neighbors house.

Who knows to what aiming badly could lead.

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