Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Book Review—'The Art of Choosing' by Carlos G. Valles

My friend and mentor Stephen Brachlow gave me some of his books when he retired. Over the last few years, I meandered through them, pausing at some interesting titles, and occasionally stopping to read one from cover to cover. The other day, The Art of Choosing by Carlos Valles caught my eye. We all face choices, and as a pastor, people call on me to help them discern a path in a cluttered world. Valles’ book promised to offer help. The back cover listed its subject matter as “Spirituality/Self-Help.” What a combination! I was intrigued.

Carlos Valles (b. 1925) is a Spanish-born Jesuit who spent a half-century teaching and writing in India. He retired to Madrid, where he still lives and writes. He taught mathematics and wrote extensively in the Gujarati language. In The Art of Choosing, he explains that he began writing in English in order to improve his language skills. His style is practical and accessible. Anyone, including intrepid teens, will be able to follow the flow of Valles’ argument.

Valles has a unique author’s voice. Although The Art of Choosing (New York: Image, 1989) is one of his early books in English, he was already established as an author in India. He writes in conversation with the reader, as if I (the reader) know that he is an author, is writing a book, and needs to explain why he chose this subject. The opening is almost an apologetic for the subject matter, which was slightly off-putting to me, but other readers might not be bothered by it. After getting past the opening, the content is worth the effort.

Having lived in India since the 1950s, Valles dances between Christian references, especially to Ignatius of Loyola and Peter Faber, and Hindu spirituality. In the early chapters, there is an almost synchronistic flair to the movement between Eastern and Western religious references. He borrows wisdom from each, and the lessons he relates have an earthy tone. The opening lines of the book elude to a secular undercurrent. Valle writes:

When I told a friend I was writing a book on how to make choices, he cut me short and said categorically, “That’s very simple: First listen very carefully to what all others have to say about it. And then go and do what you damn well want.”

Few theologians would have the confidence or need to include profanity in the first sentence of a book. (N.B. That was only profanity in the entire book.)

The 135-page book is organized into fourteen relatively short chapters. Valles begins by defining choices, and he makes it clear that choices go far beyond the biggest decisions in life, although he does address some big choices, like his decision to enter the Society of Jesus. One of the most helpful chapters is “The Fear of Choosing.” He writes about the dilemma of making a choice. “It is a simple fact that when choosing one thing we must give up another” (20). Highlighting the Latin etymology of decision—decidere (to cut off)—he writes, “We dislike having to give up all the other choices equally possible till then” (21). Making decisions, even small ones, requires courage.

The following chapter, “The Mixture Within Us,” addresses the conflict that can take place when people face a choice. There are mixed motivations for everything, even when people refuse to admit it. Valles shares a biographical story about his decision to be a Jesuit. His decision was a mixture. Part of him felt called, but there were other motives too. His decision was based, in part, on inertia and the practical expectations of the people around him. For many years, he would have articulated his decision as “called by God,” as one would expect. Later, after extensive introspection, he realized the roles of inertia and expectations in his “call.” People ask “why” questions, when “how” is much easier to answer. Instead of being able to answer the question, “Why did you become a Jesuit?,” he would explain how he became a Jesuit.

Clergy, teachers, therapists, doctors, and many other people will likely identify with Valles’ honesty. I knew a young doctor who, when I asked him why he became a doctor, said, “I wanted to see if I could get into medical school.” It was later that he realized, “I’m a doctor.” I asked a retired urologist why he decided to go into urology; he said, “During medical school, I had a professor who specialized in urology. He made it sound so interesting, and, besides, most of our patients survive.” Both people entered a lifelong profession for practical, even mundane reasons. Valles gives voice to the practical, and in some ways, he blesses it.

Choices are a process. Valles develops an approach to this process. First, attempt to free oneself from all that can destroy the choice. Be open to the different possibilities. Second, connect with everything that is relevant to the choice. Be at peace with one’s own soul and God. Third, trust in oneself and God who guides. Valles approaches choices devotionally and in a friendly, paternal way.

I had not heard of Valles before this book and enjoyed it. The stories he relates will surely resurface in future sermons, and his proffered wisdom with decisions have already begun helping me in my spiritual journey.



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