A Guide to Decision Making

A person makes decisions based upon that person’s time frame: past, present, or future. Most of our decisions are about fairly trivial things, and most people make such decisions within the present time frame. Do I want a coke or a coffee? Well, I’ve just come in from the cold and want something warm, so I’ll take a cup of coffee. A couple of months ago, I came in after a long walk in the hot sun, and I wanted a coke, poured over ice. During the holidays I’ll be in Acapulco, and I’ll be back to coke, but today, I want a hot cup of coffee.
Some of our worst decisions are made when we focus only on the past. One of my first patients was a Holocaust survivor. He got out of Germany in 1934, along with his wife, but he did lose extended family in the death camps. He hated all things German: from Mercedes-Benz to pumpernickel. If he exacted more pleasure by denying Germany the profits from his purchases, then perhaps it was worth denying himself the pleasure of consuming those purchases. The problem occurred when a grandson expressed an interest in a BMW. Since my role was not that of rabbi, but that of therapist, I did not challenge his decision to personally boycott German products, only to show a little tolerance for the sake of his relationship with his grandson.
It is our future-oriented decisions that tend to be our best decisions. Here, I’m not just talking about some net-present-value-interest factor because a future $1.10 is better than a present $1.00 (assuming we have less than 10% inflation and no tax on the interest). By a future-oriented decision I mean that a decision we make today has to consider the well-being of the future self. The future self tends to be wiser than our present selves (just as most of us would recognize that our present selves have more wisdom than that manifested by our past selves). Since the future self is wiser, the wisest course of action now is to choose those options providing the future self with the best array of options. This is not about deferring decisions in such a way that we shirk the responsibilities of dealing with present problems and merely “kick the can down the road” until it can be passed off to someone else. Indeed, the responsibility of the present is to provide for the future, specifically for the options from which the future self will make a decision at some point in the future.
One example of this would be postsecondary education. Many of my students find it difficult to see beyond present necessities and constraints: gainful employment is needed soon, and there is not a lot of free time (given family responsibilities). Many of my students make a decision to go ahead and become an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) or CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant), but manage to do so in a way that keeps future options open. After they finish the EMT or CNA program, get licensed and start working in the healthcare field, they can come back to school part time and go on to become a paramedic, firefighter, or nurse. Let’s give the future self the option of choosing which path to take, and when to go further on that path. The worst present decision is to close down future possibilities because of lingering past traumas.