The Parable of the Three Choices

One day I put my child in a room with a box and a chair.  The box had wires coming out of it.  They were connected to the chair.  The box also had a one hundred dollar bill sticking out of it.

I said to my child, "Child, in one hour a bolt of electricity will come out of that box and flow into your chair.  It will be very painful for you.  There is but one way for you to prevent it from happening.  You must pull the bill out of the box.  Removal of the bill will trip a switch that will short-circuit the charge, and you will be saved."

My child responded, "Why, how easy is that? I'll avoid pain and receive $100 in the bargain!"

"But," I said, "remember that you still have a choice in the matter.  You could take the shock if you prefer."

"OK," my child said.  "But, why would I ever do that?"

"Pride," I said.  "You might decide that, as a matter of principle, you shouldn't take the money because you perceive that you're being coerced into taking it.  I don't understand this reasoning personally," I admitted, "but it has been known to happen."

"But," my child said, "that would be stupid."

"Indeed," I said.  "Because obviously you aren't being coerced into anything."

"Well, actually," my child said, "I AM being coerced into something.  You've put me in a situation where harm will come to me if I don't take the $100."

"Nonsense," said I.  "The harm that comes to you is merely the natural consequence of you not taking the money.  Since there is an obvious and pleasurable way out of your predicament, the only person you have to blame if you don't escape it is yourself."

"That's correct," my child said, "given that I'm already in this predicament.  But given that I'm only in this predicament because of you, it still holds that I'm being coerced.  If I'm given a choice between something awesome and something awful, it would be foolish of me to choose the awful thing.  But how is it I came to only have a choice between awesome and awful?"

"Hmm," I said to my child, "So what you're saying is that the absurdity I see in folks who don't take the bill speaks less to their stubbornness or stupidity and more to the absurdity of the situation itself?"

"Precisely," my child said.

"I can fix that," I replied confidently.

Then I put my child in a very comfortable room where all the child's needs could be abundantly met.  I also placed a television in the room.  And these are the instructions I gave to my child:  "You must not turn on the television at any cost.  If you do so, a fuse will blow and this room will cease to provide you with all of the things you need.  In particular, it will become unbearably cold in here and no matter what you do it will be terribly uncomfortable for you.  Do you understand?"

My child said, "I do."

I left the room to retire for the night, not taking into account that the season premiere of "Lost" was on that evening and, sure enough, the next day I found my child shivering in the room claiming that the call of the ABC hit series was just too much to resist.

"Now," I said, "you definitely have nobody else to blame for THIS state of affairs but yourself."

"Well, we could debate that," my child said, "but for the sake of argument I'll grant you that your statement is true."

"But fret not," I said to my child, "for here I have a blanket.  It won't solve all of your problems right away, but it will at least comfort you to the point that the problems you do have won't seem so bad."

"Awesome!  Thanks!" my child said.

"But wait!" I said.  "You don't have to take the blanket.  If you like, you can keep suffering in the cold."

"Why would I do that?" my child asked.

"Maybe you're lazy," I said.  "While you're cold you can use that as an excuse not to do anything around here.  But as soon as you're warm, you'll expect more out of yourself."

"That doesn't really make any sense, does it?" my child said.

"Well, no, it doesn't," I said.  "But it's how people are."

"I don't know anybody like that," my child said.  "This decision is really a no-brainer.  To be honest, while I'll concede that my situation is the result of my own choice, I don't see how in the solution to my situation I've been given any choice at all."

"Well, you should have thought of that before you watched Lost," I said.  But something about what my child said made me question how I was going about things.

So then I took my child out of the room and we went to a park and sat down in the grass next to a pond and watched the barn swallows skim the surface for bugs.

"My child," I said, "I promise you from this moment forward that I'll always be with you and try to assist you in your life in any way I can, while avoiding, of course, the pitfalls of living your life for you.  But I want you to know that you don't have to allow me to do this."

"Why wouldn't I?" my child asked.

"Because you are your own person," I said.  "And you have a choice."

"OK," my child said.  "What happens if I choose not to allow you to do this?"

I shrugged.  "Maybe nothing.  Maybe good things.  Maybe bad things.  But the only question that should matter to you is, would you miss me? Because if you wouldn't, then would it make any difference what would happen if we parted ways?"

My child thought about that for a few moments and said, "No, I suppose it wouldn't."

We watched the swallows some more.  Then my child said, "So no punishments, no dire consequences, not even any rational incentives for me to accept your offer?"

"Nope," I said.

"The only reason left for me to justify my staying... is because I want to?" my child said.

"That's the only reason I can think of.  IF you want to," I said.

My child smiled at me and said, "I want to."

And my ears had never heard three sweeter words spoken.


i really really really like this story.

George Herbert's "The Collar"

I was teaching this poem today (which is one of my faves...generally I love the metaphysical poets).  It was strongly reminding me of this parable.  What really gets to me about it is the contrast in the fast-paced questions that give that sense of desperation through the whole poem, but then the way those questions are addresssed with a single one word answer and how you can see the speaker's complete change in his reply.

 I struck the board and cried, "No more;
        I will abroad!
  What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free, free as the road,
  Loose as the wind, as large as store.
        Shall I be still in suit?
  Have I no harvest but a thorn
  To let me blood, and not restore
What I have lost with cordial fruit?
        Sure there was wine
  Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
  Is the year only lost to me?
Have I no bays to crown it,
No flowers, no garlands gay? All blasted?
                All wasted?
  Not so, my heart; but there is fruit,
        And thou hast hands.
    Recover all thy sigh-blown age
On double pleasures; leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit and not. Forsake thy cage,
        Thy rope of sands,
Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee
  Good cable, to enforce and draw,
        And be thy law,
  While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
        Away! take heed;
        I will abroad.
Call in thy death's-head there; tie up thy fears.
        He that forbears
To suit and serve his need,
        Deserves his load."
But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
        At every word,
  Methought I heard one calling, Child!
        And I replied, My Lord.


Just curious if you'd read through the book of Job at all. It's not exactly poetry, but it's not exactly prose either. I love God's responses to Job. It's in the same vein as in "Evan Almighty" when Steve Carrell is trying to resist the calling and says, "That really doesn't fit into my plans right now" and Morgan Freeman (as God) says, "Heh. Your plans!"


What I find most intriguing about the book of Job, outside of Job himself, is the familiarity to the advice and criticisms from the people around him...sometimes that testing that God allowed to fall on Job is overlooked in that story due to the severity of the more obviously harsh aspects he was dealing with.


I haven't ESi, though I did give my Dad the Stephen Mitchell translation years ago and started reading it before I gave it to him thinking I'd really like to get back to it.  So thanks for reminding me.  Do you know that translation?  I know my Dad loved it--it's in verse form.

Stephen Mitchell translation

I don't think I've ever heard of that translation. My brain goes weird reading poetry though, for some reason I just have a really hard time processing it. I still haven't finished the book of Isaiah because it takes me so long to actually get the chapters into my mind.

The Parable of the Three Choices

I love this story. And it was very helpful for me right now. Thanks.