July 24, 2008
My friend Kate has turned second-guessing into an art form.
In less time than it takes to say “Mexican food,” she can change her mind three times about where she wants to eat lunch. And when it comes to bigger decisions, like buying a car or switching doctors, she rides the roller-coaster of self-doubt so frequently that in the end every decision feels like the wrong one.
But Kate is not alone. Many of us feel insecure or beat ourselves up about the choices we make, especially when they involve decisions about personal relationships, money, family, and career. According to various psychological studies, second-guessing can actually affect our mental and physical health. Failing to trust our own instincts can negatively affect our mood, lower our self-esteem, and create overall anxiety and depression. Not to mention the internal paralysis it generates as we dwell in the Land of Indecision, where we often lose out on opportunities because of our inaction.
Recently, Kate called me to share the exciting news about her decision to take early retirement. She had worked for her company for more than 20 years and could retire now if she was willing to take a smaller pension and find work as a consultant to make up the difference in income. I was thrilled for her and promised we’d celebrate at the restaurant of her choice.
“Chinese would be great,” she said, but quickly added, “unless maybe we should do Greek.”
I hung up the phone but before I made it to the next room, it rang again.
Kate was worried. Was retirement the right decision? What if she was wrong and nobody would hire her as a consultant? What if she needed the structure and was kidding herself? Should she just stay put and leave well enough alone?
Her torment went on for the next few days. My phone never stopped ringing. Finally, I lost my patience.
“Kate, if you keep on looking back over your shoulder, you’ll become a pain in your own neck, not to mention mine,” I said, trying to lighten her up a bit.
“But what if I’m making a mistake?”
That’s when it hit me: Since the beginning of biblical time, we have been looking back over our shoulders, afraid that we will make mistakes or miss out on something if we choose one thing over another. Indeed, with each decision, we open new doors while we close others.
The quintessential “looking back over our shoulders” story is that of Lot’s wife and her escape from Sodom, a city notorious for its sinning and population of evildoers, so much so that when Abraham urged God to spare the city if he could find just 10 righteous people, he lost the battle.
In Genesis 19:15-17, we read the urgent message of the angels who plead with Lot to get his family out before they, too, are destroyed. When he delays, they grab him and his wife by the hands and take them away from Sodom, cautioning them with these words: “Flee for your life! Do not look back or stop anywhere in the plain. Flee to the hills before you are swept away!”
But Lot’s wife does not heed their advice. She looks back and is instantly transformed into that famous pillar of salt.
Not much is said about Lot’s wife in the commentaries. She doesn’t even have a name. So we are left wondering: What message should we extract for the harsh punishment she receives for the simple act of turning around to see her city, in flames, for one last time?
It seems to me it was second-guessing that was her downfall. Perhaps she did not have faith in the voice of the angels and wondered if she really needed to flee at all. Perhaps she wasn’t really certain that she wanted to leave her home and family. Or, as is the case for most of us, perhaps she just didn’t know if the decision to leave would be the right one in the end.
Whether we have made the “right” decision is often something we cannot verify until long after the decision has been made and we can see the results of our choices. But second-guessing (kishke dreying in Yiddish), does little to make our choices right and often, it causes more tzuris than making the decision itself.
What is important to remember is that once we have made a thoughtful decision — even though there may be more than one “right” choice — it is up to us to take whatever steps are necessary to make that decision right for us.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman (amyhirshberglederman.com) is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker, and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns won American Jewish Press Association Rockower Awards in 2007 and 2008 for excellence in commentary.