It was almost 1 a.m. by the time I came out of Walmart one night. I didn’t have many items, but I rolled my purchases out to the car on a shopping cart because I had a huge bag of dog food that I didn’t want to carry. It had been raining hard while I was in the store, but there was a break in the rain while I walked out and loaded the car. Then the rain started again.
The parking lot was virtually deserted and there were shopping carts left abandoned in various places, presumably by people who didn’t want to take the time in the rain to put the carts in the places where they belonged. But I found myself walking the empty cart over to the cart corral — or whatever they call it these days — as the rain came pounding down on me.
As I ran back to the car, I laughed at myself for going to the trouble of putting the cart in the right place in the downpour. I briefly wondered why I bothered. After all, there were plenty of other carts all over the parking lot. Mine would have been just one more. There was nobody out there to see me, so nobody would have even known I hadn’t put it where it was supposed to go. Despite those things, I immediately knew why I’d done it.
I’d returned the cart to the proper place simply because I had decided — at some distant time in the past that I don’t even recall — that I was the kind of person who always put the cart up. I’d seen — and disapproved of — many people over the years who left carts in random places in parking lots. So I’d unconsciously programmed myself. I had decided that I wasn’t like that — and that programming gently led me to walk with a cart in the rain when others wouldn’t.
My point here isn’t to pat myself on the back for being such a good boy for putting my cart away. That’s not the point. I felt compelled to put it up, so it wasn’t really a conscious decision that night to “be good.” The point is that I acted in the way I did because of what I had decided — a long time ago — to be.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I guess it can be good when you like the behavior that flows from being the person you’ve decided to be. But it can be a bad thing when you don’t like the behavior you exhibit because of what you’ve decided you are.
We think of ourselves making decisions every day about what to do — who to associate with, what to do with our lives, what to do with our time and what to act like around other people. But I don’t think that’s quite accurate. I think we instead decide what we are — we decide what to be — and that automatically takes us down the path toward the things we do.
The best news is that if you don’t like your life — if you don’t like the things you’re doing and the results you’re getting — you have the power to change that, by changing your conscious (and subconscious) decisions about who you are.
Sometimes, these decisions are small things, such as my decision that I’m not the sort of person who leaves a shopping car in the wrong place in a parking lot. (It left me soaking wet. I didn’t care for that part.) Other times, those decisions can be much bigger ones. I’ve had opportunities in politics sometimes to make money in ways that I didn’t feel were right, so I’ve turned them down — leaving me with a bit less money, but feeling better about myself.
Still other times, you’re faced with making bigger decisions, even when you don’t want to make them, simply because you realize that your prior decisions are no longer applicable or no longer working. For instance, I’ve talked before about why I had to change my political beliefs a couple of times as I came to understand things I hadn’t understood before. That wasn’t pleasant. One of the most painful changes for me was to decide about 13 years ago to divorce. My ex-wife and I had known for about three years that we didn’t belong together, but we both had made conscious decisions years before that we didn’t believe in divorce for ourselves. We weren’t going to be divorced people. We weren’t going to disappoint other people. So we stayed together for three unhappy years before finally accepting that we had to consciously change our belief and accept something we hadn’t wanted to accept. In the short run, it was painful. In the long run, it was better for both of us. (And letting her go allowed her to be in a very happy marriage and have a son that she wouldn’t have had otherwise.)
As you watch yourself go through life, ask whether you’re happy with what you’re doing. Do you like the things that are going on? If not, you have the power to change them, but not until you figure out what it is that you’ve decided to be that has led you to do what you’re doing.
I’m sure I looked pretty silly that night as I pushed the empty cart through the pouring rain. It’s OK, though, because I like being the guy who puts his cart up every time. I might have to change some of what I am along the way — in order to get results I like better in other areas — but I think I’m going to keep the one about the cart, even if it does mean I get soaked every now and then as a result.