by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, November 6, 2016
Every choice we make has an impact beyond what we can see at the moment of choosing.
With prayer, spiritual direction, discernment, conversation with people whose wisdom and values we admire, we hope to make significant choices rightly and in ways that will bring blessing and peace both for ourselves and for those affected by what we choose: a life partner; a home for our family; a new and promising job; a friendship; a vocation or lifestyle that holds meaning and promise beyond ourselves. In ways both large and small, we are constantly choosing, deciding, discerning, and all of these choices, even the most routine, have consequences.
What are we to do and how are we to be when, even though we’ve been attentive and reflective, we look back on a choice that we’ve made and see that the way it’s unfolded over time is disappointing, limiting, or no longer life-giving? Marriages can deteriorate; jobs can disappear; relationships can dissolve; a path we thought would lead to our enduring happiness and peace of mind can fall apart and collapse. What are we then to do? How are to be in the light of what we come to know or see years later?
I recently listened to a StoryCorps podcast that spoke to this. In Could Have Been Anybody, (#482, September 9, 2016), StoryCorps invited Vaughn Allex to share a painful secret he had been carrying for years since September 11, 2001. On that day, Vaughn was working at the American Airlines ticket counter at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. He was just completing the check-in for Flight 77 when two men who were running late approached his counter.
Vaughn did everything that a ticket agent was supposed to do in that pre-9/11 era: he checked their IDs, asked them the standard security questions, and also flagged the men so that their bags would be held. Following the 1988 Pan Am Flight 102 crash over Lockerbie Scotland—the result of a bomb on board–security worries at that time were focused on luggage that might contain bombs, not on the people themselves. It turned out that the two men Vaughn checked in on September 11 were among the hijackers who brought Flight 77 crashing down into the Pentagon. The hijackers killed not only themselves, but all 189 people on board that flight.
Vaughn, with a reputation as a thorough, responsible employee, was devastated. He was haunted by the reality that his actions were tied to the loss of so many innocent lives. Even though, in those pre-9/11 days of airline travel, he had taken all the steps required of him for check-in, he carried a tremendous burden of guilt and kept his role secret. He tried to join a support group for those affected by the losses of that terrible day, but as he listened to the stories of people wracked with grief over loved ones killed, he felt there was no place for him, the person who had “allowed” such a tragedy to move forward.
He began to think that everything that had happened on 9/11 was somehow his fault. When a woman who had no idea of the burden of shame he was carrying around shared that her husband had died on 9/11, what Vaughn heard was, “You killed my husband that day.”
It was only years later, in a new job with the Department of Homeland Security, that he edited an internal newsletter and decided, for the September issue, to invite people to share their stories of 9/11. He also decided it was time to include his own. What a release he experienced after the newsletter was published and he received message after message of comfort and understanding and affirmation. Not one negative word.
So often in spiritual direction, people share their regret over actions or attitudes of the past, even over actions taken in good faith and after careful discernment. This is true especially when the words spoken or the choices made did not result in a positive outcome. There are often expressions of “I should have…” or “If I knew then what I know now.” There is sometimes self-loathing or guilt or hidden shame. So how, then, are we to be when, like Vaughn Allex, our best efforts seem linked to a negative result?
The reality is that we cannot change the past; what we can change is the way we remember it, the way we respond to it, the way we integrate it into where we are now. We can accept the truth that, as flawed human beings, we did the best we could with the information we had at the moment. We can name our pain and let it go. We can refuse to beat ourselves up with those deadly and futile words, “I coulda, I shoulda, I woulda.” We can use our anguish, our grief, our shame to bless someone else whose wounds are even fresher than ours. We can continue to trust that our all-knowing God sees the desires of our heart, knows the motives of our soul, hears our deep longing for healing and wholeness, and continues to call us “beloved.”
Reflect on a choice you made in the past that had unintended consequences.
Revisit how you felt when things didn’t turn out as expected.
If you’re carrying guilt or shame over the result, take some time to sit with God and ask for the grace to forgive and be compassionate with yourself.
Reflect on a choice you wrestled with that has proven life-giving beyond your imagination.
Take time to sit with God and give thanks.
Reflect on a person you know who is currently struggling to make wise choices. Hold that person in prayer and offer them your understanding and support.
Please hold in your prayer two upcoming days of retreat and reflection in November: one for St. Aidan’s Rosary Society on “Claiming Our Lives as Blessed and Blessing” and one on “My Work Is Loving the World,” at Our Lady of Grace Center, Manhasset, NY.
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