From the Book of Joel:
in the valley of decision!
For the day of the Lord is near
in the valley of decision.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Joel 3:14 – November 17, 2012)
The “valley of decision” is probably another name for the Valley of Jehoshaphat referred to in an earlier verse of this chapter of the Prophet Joel. Jehoshaphat (a Hebrew name pronounced “yeh-hoh-shah-faht”) is a compound word of two other Hebrew terms, Yahweh (one of the names of God) and shaphat (meaning “to judge” or “to decide”). Jehoshaphat, therefore, means “God will judge” or “God will decide”. Geographically, the valley of Jehoshaphat, the valley of decision, lies between the city of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives.
It seems to me that the image, “the valley of decision,” makes a marvelous metaphor for the whole process of making judgments in life. We speak of “mountain-top experiences” to describe those “Aha! moments” when insight or revelation comes upon us suddenly; the metaphor of passing through a valley seems an apt image for the alternative of the mundane decision-making in which every person engages every day.
How do people make decisions? How do we sift through piles of information without being overwhelmed by the plethora of alternatives? What are the factors that lead us in a certain direction? As I pondered the image of the “valley of decision,” I recalled my college days when a weekend away with friends usually meant a back-packing foray into the Anza-Borrego Desert east of San Diego or the Agua Tibia Wilderness Area northeast of the city. Often these hiking excursions took us to places where few human beings had walked before; we had compasses and topological maps to guide us, but often there was no trail picked out by earlier hikers. We had to forge the trail ourselves. Often we found ourselves at the top of a hill overlooking a desert valley with no clear path. “How are we going to get down there?” was a frequent question.
Years after those college-day hikes, I went to graduate school and received a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Nevada. Among the things we studied (and supposedly learned) were the steps of management decision-making. The decision-making process, we were taught, involves the following steps:
- Define the problem.
- Identify limiting factors.
- Develop potential alternatives.
- Analyze the alternatives.
- Select the best alternative.
- Implement the decision.
- Establish a control and evaluation system.
Standing at the top of a hill in the middle of the desert carrying a 50-pound pack at the end of a day of hiking, one does not stop to engage in that formal a process! Making our way downhill into the valley did mean carefully considering the path not only as a way down, but also as a potential exit route since we had no idea what we might find below or on the other side. However, we had to get down the hill and did so by making small, individual choices as we took each step down into the valley.
When we make big decisions, we do not have infinite resources and we frequently do not have a lot of time to gather information and analyze data. Furthermore, we human beings are significantly limited in the amount of complexity with which we can cope. So even though we may try to make decisions on the basis of some formal, rational process, we often resort to simplifying assumptions; we accept that our information is limited; and we settle for a less-than-thorough analysis of available data. We constantly use simplifying and confidence-sustaining mental short cuts that psychologists call “heuristics”; these reduce the complexity of our decision making. They are like the small individual choices we hikers made step-by-step going down into those desert valleys.
When we reached the bottom of the hill, when we were down in the valley, we had answered the question, “How are we going to get down there?” We had entered into and reached the bottom of our “valley of decision,” made the decision, not in one grand effort of rational analysis and pre-planning following the logical steps of that graduate school management class, but simply by taking a series of small steps.
Life is like that. There are very few mountain-top “Aha!” experiences. There are a lot of valleys of decision and not a few steep hills of decision, as well. We go through life taking small steps down into valleys and up onto hills, reaching decisions we may not even realize we are making. Everybody does it! Multitudes, multitudes are in the valley of decision every day.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.