Professor L.A. Paul, BIRTHA Annual Lecture 2016

Professor Laurie Paul

Transformative Experience: Big Life Decisions

Peel Lecture Theatre, 26 April 2016.

Life is filled with choices. I will discuss the way that some of these choices are life-defining choices, and how some of these life-defining choices are transformative.

Metaphorically, there are times in life when we face a crossroads. As we live our lives, we face big choices, involving opportunities to undergo experiences that change us personally. Some of us become parents. Some of us enlist. Some of us take a promotion overseas. Some of us hear the word of God. Some of us don’t. Often, these choices have outcomes that are not uniformly bad or good. They aren’t choices like opting for medical treatment because the only alternative is death or significant pain. Rather, they are choices where you choose one path rather than another, taking you irreversibly into one life rather than another. Moreover, what you do, what you care about, even the very person you become, is formed by your choice. In this sense, your choice is life-defining, and as I’ll describe it, it is a transformative choice. Such choices are opportunities, but they are also challenges. They challenge us to act in ways that will have the greatest chance of a fulfilling, valuable life, while also looking within ourselves to see what we really want and who we really are.

As I will argue, the trouble is that these life-defining choices often put us in a situation where it is incredibly hard to choose in a way that is true to ourselves. This is because the life-defining experience involved is both radically new, such that you have to have it to know what it will be like for you to undergo it, but at the same time it will change your core personal preferences. As a result, the transformative experiences involved teach us things we cannot know about from any other source other than the experiences themselves.

My conclusion will be that making a rational choice to become a parent, or enlist in the military, or even to fashion an advanced directive for your future care as an Alzheimer’s patient, can require that you give up on reflection from within. As a result, when we make our big decisions, we must also decide: do we look within ourselves to make the choice, do we defer to the scientific expert, or do we simply flip a coin and hope for the best?

- Professor L.A. Paul

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