The Exodus:5 Project
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his courtiers had a change of heart about the people and said, “What is this we have done, releasing Israel from our service?” Exodus 14:5
I don’t know that I have made any big decision in my life without second-guessing myself after the fact. The most consequential decision I ever made was to marry. The night before my wedding, I woke up at about 3:00 a.m. and said to my brother, sleeping in the next bed, “I don’t think I can go through with this.” He spoke these words of wisdom in return: “Shut up and go back to sleep.”
When we bought a house and contracted for a renovation, I came up to it one day as the peak of the roof on the new second floor was being finished. It looked enormous and I was seized with panic – what had we done to the neighborhood?
After more than a dozen years and 100,000 miles, the car we schlepped our kids in was ready for retirement from our emerging needs – commuting, transporting older passengers, visiting our children in other cities. So we bought a car we knew would last us another dozen years with a better kind of road-worthiness. After research and budgeting we looked at the dealer’s best offer – exactly what we expected. Once again, my heart began pounding as I realized the size of the dent we made in our savings.
The technical name for these worries is buyer’s remorse. I am among the billions of human beings – probably including you – who have experienced this sense of insecurity after a major decision. There is a complicated psychological explanation for it, but it boils down to a version of something a friend of mine who is a legislator told me: you get behind a bill about 60% sure of your position and work your way up beyond 90% at the time of the vote; then you have time to think about it.
All of the examples I offer here are about consequential decisions that not only were the right decisions, but ones that were beneficial (especially the first). But reconsidering a consequential decision that was the wrong decision, or that was not beneficial, can also be an example of buyer’s remorse. What they all have in common is the need to change. If the change is for the better, we tend to come around to early acceptance. If it for the worse, then we have two choices. We can either make the best of it or try to undo what we consider a mistake.
What is the nature of the consequential decision that Pharaoh made to release the Israelites from slavery? It was not a decision of principle, that’s for sure – Egypt in general and Pharaoh in particular were exhausted by the suffering visited on them ten times. The eradication of the first-born among the Egyptians cast a darkness on every surviving soul more profound than the darkness of the preceding plague. Pharaoh capitulated. He was not convinced. And when three days had passed and the upending of a way of life settled in as a reality, buyer’s remorse was an understandable reaction.
Unfortunately, nobody said to him, “Shut up and go back to being Pharaoh.”
The same scenario has played out in our society many times. As Americans we have made lurching progress toward the grand vision we have of an enlightened democracy. My cousin Brent said to me that he worries that we have lost the desire to live into the Enlightenment values that form the conscience of the Constitution. Those are the ideas, he said, that were too big to be fully contained by the document.
Sometimes out of principle but most times out of exhaustion we have done the right thing to the native people we had chased off their land, the Africans we had stolen and imported, the women we had kept disenfranchised, the tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Each time we considered capitulation, we imagined it meant relinquishing something to which we felt entitled. It was hard to see the benefit of being right if it meant being less.
And here we are today, some segment of our society finding a champion for their buyer’s remorse for an America less white, less European, less Christian, less heterosexual than when it was “great” in their imaginations. Maybe they will mount chariots and chase their lost chance to dominate into the unknown. But the good guys will prevail as, eventually, they always do.
And soon the rest of us will shut up go back to being America.