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How to “pick your battles”

By September 6, 2007Uncategorized

It is so easy to say: "pick your battles."  But, what exactly does that mean?  I know the obvious answer to that question.  But there must be a non-obvious answer too.  Why else would so many of us waste so much time battling things that, later, seem so ridiculous.

Well, for one, we rarely, if ever, see the thing we fight for as a
waste of time.  We live in narrow strips of time, and in that time all of our battles are of paramount importance.  We spend little time on strategic planning, and most of it in the fog of war.

We often fight to force our views on others, whether they are
inclined to accept our views or not.  Religions like to do this, but so
do many well-meaning people.  Well-meaning people have fought all kinds
of senseless battles over the years.  Just in the past century
well-meaning people tried to keep women from voting, and blacks from
having equal rights in society.

Oh sure, it’s now obvious to most people (although there are still
some holdouts) that women should be allowed to vote and blacks should
be allowed to have social dignity on an equal footing with whites.  We
have all kinds of parades to commemorate the just battle of the
righteous for those struggles.  We forget about the ill-conceived
battles of the ‘non-righteous.’  We completely forget that well-meaning
people fight ridiculous battles all the time.  And who are we?  Why
well-meaning people, of course.

And what about the non-epic battles?  The ones that, if won, will
never be commemorated with a parade or a holiday? What about those
every day little struggles that we all engage in constantly?  What does
it mean to ‘pick your battles’ there?  Who will teach us to identify
the sensless battles in our everyday life?  In this case there is an
obvious answer.  But, unfortunately, it’s not one we like to think
about.  Here’s a question to help move things along. 

What if you knew that you only had 10 minutes to live?  Someone has
implanted a thing in your brain and you are doomed to die no matter
what you do.  So, in that context, would it be easier for you to figure
out which battles to fight?  I think a lot of things would come into
sharp relief rather quickly.

Of course, you aren’t likely to die in 10 minutes.  But you could, right?

It’s funny.  We all know we’re going to die, and yet when our death
approaches it always comes as a major shock to us.  Some people get
snagged by death without ever knowing it arrived.  But most of us have
time to experience some shock.  What is contained in that moment of
shock?  Is there some important realization in that initial moment of

I have no idea.  But here’s what I’m thinking.  Even without knowing exactly
when my death will arrive, if I paid more attention the fact that I
will not live forever, then I’ll bet that a lot of the battles would be
easier to pick.

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  • Ernie says:

    Amen, brother Phil. Amen!

  • Phil Radecker says:

    As you know, Ernie, I recently had reason to contemplate the questions you raise in this posting. My diagnosis, as I have said many times, is a strange and wonderful gift. It not only allowed me clearly put things in priority, but it let me see that I had a lot things in order anyway.

    Some time ago, pre-diagnois, I began some notes for a poem that never was. The notes came from observing my dogs, who for all we know, have no idea of their eventual demise. Yet, they appear to live life as if they indeed only had ten minutes left. When they run, they run all out. When they relax, they definitely relax. When they eat, they eat like there’s no, well, you get the picture. Oh, and another thing. They love, or at least they appear to me to love, without condition.

    We, on the other hand, know we are going to die. Yet, we act as if we have time to wait to do things fully. We’ll get to that when this or that happens. Or, once I get that raise, I’ll have time to devote to my family. And so on. And talk about loving with strings attached? We humans are the masters of the game.

    How much of your life do you spend looking forward to being somewhere else?

    I’m striving to be more like my dogs every day.

  • Sophmom says:

    Isn’t this how we’re supposed to live all the time? I know it’s work to accomplish it and no one ever does so perfectly, but if we’re trying every day, if believing that in close personal relationships when anyone “wins” everyone “loses” becomes our practice, isn’t that something? I am reminded of a quote attributed to Father Mychal Judge, the NYFD chaplain who was killed on 9/11/2001: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him what you’re going to do tomorrow.” Nice post, Ernie.

  • I also don’t think that contemplating how much time one has left is getting easier. Despite (or perhaps in part because of) the tremendous advances in knowledge over the past couple hundred years, many of us seem to feel more anxious about envisioning death. Life expectancy increased by some thirty years during the 20th century, and that helps create the sense of not having to think about it too much, especially when you’re young.

    And now, extremely reputable scientists and engineers are suggesting that soon there will be substantial enough technological breakthroughs to create immortality (or at least hyperlongevity) here on earth. I wonder what “picking your battles” would mean then?

  • mominem says:

    I am reminded of the Saint who when asked “What will you do this afternoon?” replied “Tend my garden”. When asked “What would you do this afternoon, if you knew you would die tomorrow?”, the answer was “Tend my garden”.

    I’m not sure if this is applicable to your question but it seems to me if we each live our lives according to our own true conscience that will point us to the battles we each feel are important.

  • M. Sean Fosmire says:

    “What if you had only ten minutes?” is never presented to any person, and ten minutes would not permit a meaningful response.

    But we are (or our friends and neighbors are) sometimes presented with a prediction that there are only 6, 12, 24 months left. How would one make those last months meaningful?

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