A friend of mine reported hearing once unmistakably from God. She had debated intensely and at length between two passions: to pursue a career in opera or to go to seminary and then into the ministry. Exhausted by the struggle, she heard, “It doesn’t make any difference.”
We have heard about Buridan’s ass, the donkey starving between two equally inviting bales of hay. We sometimes toss a coin to decide a contested issue. Though conventional ethics discusses right and wrong, more complex ethics uses more categories. Islamic ethics has five categories: the commanded, the permitted (or encouraged), the indifferent, the discouraged, and the forbidden. Western ethicists have long recognized “adiaphora,” alternatives that are so trivially different that it is a mistake to take time debating them.
The surprise in my friend’s case is that from an ordinary human perspective it would seem that the alternatives she was debating were significantly different. Hearing her story expanded my understanding of ethics.
I make sense of her story in the following way. Ethics often places disproportionate emphasis on what to do. But two other factors are important: that we supremely desire to do the right thing, and how we do it.
When my friend was told that it didn’t make any difference which of the two careers she chose, I think that the message may have been that she would be blessed—and would be a blessing—in either career. The important thing was how she went about it. Indeed, in this case that how was so much more important than which alternative to choose that she was released from the agony of the choice to the liberated pursuit of her career in seminary and beyond.
A few days ago I was tied up in knots about things; my blood pressure was too high; and I needed to place a high priority on reversing my habits of mind and body in the way I react to valuable agenda that I regard as urgent. Puzzling over the problem, I realized the 900 pound gorilla in the room: being too wrapped up in my philosophy of living project. Immediately I knew what I had to do—to place a higher important on how I conduct (for example) the current phase of getting the book ready than the importance I place on what needs to be done (which I tend to think of in terms of a vague schedule that needs to be met).
Immediately divine spirit flowed in with a beautiful how, a way that I could palpably feel. This beautiful how would enable me to conduct my work in a way consistent with poise, health, and peace. And the key to constant communion with this Way was to consecrate myself fully to this it and to trust that God would let me know when I need to refresh my openness to the constant spiritual renewing of my mind.
How we do something is more important than what we do. The what is very important. And the divine way to do those things is even more important.
The photo Coin Tossing was taken by Филип Романски.