It is the great American unload-the-car-after-Thanksgiving gig. And because I want to minimize the number of trips up the stairs, it is very important to pack as many items on each trip as is possible. Last trip: One medium size suitcase, one small guitar amplifier, one steel empty cooking pot. As I’m half-way up a flight of stairs the cooking pot, which is under the arm carrying the suitcase, starts to slowly slide downward, obeying master gravity. I am at once faced with a familiar set of decisions, a cameo of life.
If something falls, what will it be? If I try to somehow save everything at the same time I very well could lose it all. Like a juggler fumbling after an entire set of balls rather than catching at least one or two, I could lose a suitcase, amplifier and cooking pot. What to do?
First, I have to choose, prioritize. If only one object survives the tumble, which shall be saved? And more importantly, why?
Will I base this decision on what is most valuable? Of all the items, one may be most valuable, but why? Is it because of its cash value? Or is it the most difficult to replace? Of all the candidates, does this one have sentimental value? Do I need this object immediately and couldn’t find a replacement in time? Are the runners up simply a dime-a-dozen? Or will some survive a fall, experience little damage from being dropped?
The amp won the contest for several of the reasons listed above. But that was not a particularly difficult decision. The problem with the rest of life is that such choices are hard to make.
How does one weigh the relative good for two people? How do you choose between the needs of two children, for instance, when immediate attention can only be given to one? If there are two genocides taking place at the same time and the potential rescuer has only enough resource and force to break up one, which is chosen and why?
If we are striving, for instance, to “do no harm” or “do only good,” how do we do that when we encounter competing goods? Do we settle on doing lesser harms? Or, in the case of situational, utilitarian ethics, with love as a guiding principle, how do we know, how do we choose what is the most loving thing in each concrete situation – considering the complexities?
And so consider the parable of unloading the car and hiking up the stairs with arms full. Some things must be saved at all cost. And others, sometimes tragically, must fall. And how, good friend, can we find the grace to know, to choose, to act? And can we live with that choice, the one thing saved, the others fallen?