A few weeks ago I ate with some friends at Subway for dinner. We all had sandwiches.
(I promise this story gets better).
My wife and I sat down first and started eating while the others finished ordering. They soon followed suit, and once everyone was seated and munching away, I – either as an icebreaker, or to satisfy some kind of impulsive need to constantly compare my decisions to that of others – asked what kind of sandwiches everybody else had gotten.
One had gotten a turkey sandwich, another a chicken bacon ranch, another a salami, but soon the question was turned back onto me. What had I gotten?
“Just a ham sandwich,” I said, knowing that it was an admittedly plain and unadventurous choice of sandwich.
“Yeah,” one of my friends said, “I feel like I have to get something different when I come here. I could make one of those at home, you know?”
“Yeah,” I responded, monotonously enough. “This is just my go-to.” I took another bite.
“This is my go-to too,” he responded, and each of the other people at the table seemed to repeat in turn.
I exhaled out of my nostrils amusedly and looked at my quickly-diminishing-but-originally-one-foot-long ham sandwich. “Mine’s just so boring,” I said. They nodded in agreement.
Silence overtook our table, and I stared off at the line of customers ordering their sandwiches as I continued to eat contently. One of the people in line was talking to the Subway server while pointing at a specific veggie on the other side of the glass separator. That’s funny, I thought. I wonder what his go-to is. I took another bite and ruminated on the thought for a while. Then something in my mind clicked like a seat belt being fastened.
At the time, I was currently reading and almost finished with The Brothers Karamazov, which is an amazing work of philosophical fiction that, in my opinion, should be read by any and every person who claims to be religious or spiritual. (Well, perhaps the entire book is not absolutely necessary, but at least “The Grand Inquisitor” and “Ivan’s Nightmare and The Devil” chapters are). Anyways, the protagonist of this story – Alyosha Karamazov – is a gentle, young, novice monk who gets caught in a bloody family squabble. And for whatever reason, the fact that Alyosha was a monk had recently reminded me of the reality that there were still monks out there, wearing worn cassocks and fasting and whatnot. This was an admittedly strange observation, which had relatively little to do with the theme or thrust of the book. Still, the question had struck me: how?
I’ve always been taught that, although the monastic way of life is not inherently evil, the mindset of isolation and avoidance that characterizes it should be rejected. And all my life I’ve accepted that pronouncement over the monkish lifestyle. It is a religious way of life, no doubt. But it appears to be concerned more so with hiding rather than helping – or, at least, it seemed to be that way from the perspective of the tradition in which I grew up. So what’s up with these people who, despite that particular evaluation, still devote their lives to such a lifestyle? I could not conceive of a thought path that would end with me living in a monastery dressed in a cassock.
I assume that most of you as well, even if you weren’t taught to avoid it as I was, have probably never considered spending your life in such a way. Yet, interestingly enough, the fact remains: whether or not we’ve ever fully considered the possibility of it, we could become monks (or nuns), if we really wanted to. That choice is open to us. We could also – with perhaps the same amount of discipline and sacrifice that would be required to become a monk or nun – become pilots, or college professors, or chess teachers, or hippotherapists (which actually has nothing to do with hippos). But right now, let’s focus on monasticism.
Here’s a question: what keeps you from becoming a monk? Well, perhaps it’s as simple as the reasons I won’t be buying a flatbread salami from Subway anytime soon: because I don’t want to, and because nobody is going to force me. Simple enough. So we could chalk it up to a combination of our freedom to choose and lack of desire. Perhaps we might say further that our preferences, specific areas of interest, objectives, and obligations influence us elsewhere. Great. Sounds right to me.
But that leads me to my point – a point which, while perhaps trivial to you, was nevertheless quite profound to me when I realized it. It is this: for those who are free, to become anything is to answer the question, “who are you?”
In Subway, the server asks you what you want, and what you receive depends upon your answer. I’m only 24 (and a half) years old, but I think in life it is similar. If you are free, you have control of who you become.
“Well, no. That’s not true,” you say, “sometimes even free people get things in life that they never asked for.” Fair enough. No argument there.
“And plus,” you continue, “I wanted to be movie star when I was younger, but I later had to come to the disappointing realization that it just wasn’t in the cards for me.”
That may be true too, and if it is, I’m sorry. But I would remind you that I’m not saying we have absolute control. I’m saying we have control.
There is a realm of possibility out of which you cannot break. That, of course, is not debatable. You have limitations. We all do. The point here is that the size of your realm of possibility does not affect the fact that you have control of what you do within the parameters of that realm.
We would not say, for instance, that a person did not have control of what he or she ate at Subway on account of the virtually endless list of things he or she could not order – like, say, buzzard jambalaya, oven-roasted turducken, fresh calamari, or molten lava. We would say, rather, that they had control, in a very real sense, even if not absolute. And one amazing thing about this is that it results in the variety and beauty we experience and value so dearly in our world.
This is why Subway sells more than just ham sandwiches and the world has monks in it. Some of us are free, and among those free people can be found different preferences, specific areas of interest, and objectives that affect our choices, even if those choices are limited. Without this, the world would be one big, pink, unsurprising and uninteresting ham sandwich. So I say don’t be shy about what you want to do or how you want to spend your life. First of all, you only get one. And second of all, if you are free, then it’s probably not incorrect to assume that deep, costly sacrifices have been made to purchase that freedom – that freedom you (sometimes) so tragically overlook or ignore.
I am not claiming for a second that all of the paths from which you might choose are equal. That’s a different question altogether. But, I am claiming, rather emphatically, that there is a choice to be made.
So, what will you choose?