Deciding Is What Adults Do

Who doesn’t love an oxymoron?

Open secret, small crowd, paper towel, liquid gas, working vacation, virtual reality, and so many more. One of my favorites is “adult children,” because not only does it perfectly juxtapose two diametrically opposite halves, but also because it makes a serious point. As any of us blessed with such children know only too well, each of those two halves constantly tug at our heartstrings, pulling us in opposite directions. Our adult children will always be our children — always! — and parents desperately want to protect their children. But we must also acknowledge that they’re adults too, and we understand that as adults they have the right, indeed the responsibility, to make their own important decisions.

Because that’s what adults do.

Sure, we can and should give advice — preferably when asked, and with “gently, very very gently” as our guiding principle. But we also need to grit our teeth and not interfere with their decisions when we disagree with them — even if, as is sometimes (but only sometimes) the case, we’re right. With decision making, we need to recognize that our children’s adult halves predominate.

The importance of being allowed to make our own serious decisions was brought home to me starkly about 30 years ago, when I was, as the euphemism goes, between jobs. I had been an in-house attorney for J. C. Penney, and I thought that perhaps I would remain in that position until I retired. (Millennials note: It was a very different time.)

But man tracht und Gott lacht (man proposes and God disposes), and Penney decided to move its main office from New York City, where it had been based for more than 70 years, to Plano, Texas, a relatively new suburb of Dallas. As you already know from my biographical blurb, the wonderful modern Orthodox Teaneck community won out over a then-desert landscape, where bison roamed on the future location of Penney’s new headquarters building. So there I was — 40, with three kids, yeshiva tuitions, and a mortgage — looking for a job.

It was a difficult search, and I networked with anyone I had ever met and many I hadn’t. One of the people I contacted, a senior partner in a major New York law firm, was a friend from camp days who married one of my sister’s best friends. I explained the situation, discussed strategy, and asked if he would keep his ears open. Shortly thereafter he called and told me he had heard of an opportunity. But before giving me any details he said, “I don’t think this job is for you. You’re far too experienced, and this position isn’t on a high enough level and wouldn’t use your talents or pay what you’re worth. So at first I wasn’t going to tell you about it. But then I realized that it should be you making the decision whether it’s something you’re interested in, not me.”

So with the clear understanding that his telling me about this possibility was not an indication of his opinion of my legal skills, he gave me the particulars. And it turned out that he was right, for all the reasons he mentioned. But all these decades later I still remember his words with warmth, and I appreciate that he treated me like an adult by allowing me to make this significant life decision.

Because that’s what adults do.

This issue came up again recently when I drafted a health care proxy for myself. As lawyers often do, I had about five different forms in front of me — some prepared by law firms and others distributed by rabbinical organizations — and I was merging them into one document to meet my specific needs. Two of the rabbinical forms provided that the proxy was not only obligated to consult with a rabbi when issues of Jewish law and custom arose, but actually was required to comply with the rabbi’s decisions. Thus, it was the rabbi, and not the proxy, who would be the decision maker with respect to life and death issues.

While halacha is an essential part of who I am, and asking rabbis questions is something I take seriously and do when appropriate, I believe that decisions of this nature ultimately should be in my hands, even if my decision is to follow the rabbi’s words. So in a case where I’m unable or not competent to make such decisions, it should be in the hands of a proxy who has agreed to make the decisions she thinks I would have made. My proxy document therefore also provides for halachic consultations when necessary, but leaves the final decision, after such consultations, in the proxy’s hands — and thus in effect in my hands.

Because making such life and death decisions is what adults do.

I recently read an article about decision making. One part of it discussed a survey where people were asked what their most important life decision was. While some of those decisions concerned having children, committing to careers, determining where to live, and the like, the decision most often cited was choosing a spouse. And that’s almost — but not quite — true for me as well. Actually, the crucial decision was made on motza’ei Shabbat Nachamu in the Pioneer Hotel 52 years ago, when, as I listened to the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” playing on the juke box, I decided to ask a lovely young woman to dance. And five years later, after a snag or two (or three), that dance floor was transformed into a chuppah.

But it was my initial decision — the one I like to think was my very first adult decision — to approach the girl in the tennis sweater, whom I didn’t know but who somehow touched my soul, that changed my life.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.