Everything is a Choice

A Poison Tree
William Blake

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole,
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

A few weeks ago I was having a discussion with someone, and they mentioned they had taken an introductory course, several years prior, in forestry. One of their main take-aways was that there is really no such thing as letting a forest be “natural.” If you, as a forester, decide to clear out brush to reduce forest fires, that is a choice. Similarly, if you do nothing, that too is a choice. Decision through inaction is still a decision. Both approaches have consequences. Which is why forest management is tricky: it requires balancing the wishes of many stakeholders and trying to be a little psychic, in hopes of doing the best thing for the health of the forest.

Every so often I see rumblings on the internet from people who seem to consider themselves modern zen masters that encourage people to do nothing. Or that sometimes the way forward is actually the way back. Or sometimes the best response is no response at all. And so on. And I agree: sometimes those things are true.

And sometimes, I think some people use the convenience of those koans to justify not pushing past their personal limitations, and thus end up making their decision through inaction. An example: pet owners that fail to get medical care for their dog’s open wound. The show Animal Cops is filled with this sort of thing. When confronted, the owners always have an excuse—but their choice has born consequences. Owners may face animal confiscation or criminal charges, but the most important consequence is seen in the poor animal who suffers horribly because of their owner’s inaction.

Another example, relating to my favorite William Blake poem (from Songs of Innocence and of Experience), is with interpersonal conflict. If you’ve slighted someone, ignoring the whole situation can make the situation worse, with anger festering until it bears “an apple bright.” Recently I stepped on the figurative toes of a couple coworkers—and whereas in the past I would probably think the worst of myself and just avoid talking to them at all, then they’d probably interpret that as dislike for them and a downward spiral would be born, instead I brought one of them a small present, and found some common ground in a conversation with the other.

Lesson? Don’t let interpersonal conflict fester because it’s easier to do nothing, especially with people who are important to you. Even the act of avoiding an important someone sends them the message that they’re not important at all. And that is awesome fertilizer for growing angry apples.

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