When I was twelve, my family and I watched an island being formed.

The lava field on Hawaii’s Big Island looked like the surface of the moon. The black rock, brittle as glass, clawed at our shoes in a landscape where nothing lived. We stopped where the rock turned to a river: a slow ooze of hot lava, glowing dull red beneath its dark crust, hot enough to catch the tips of our walking sticks on fire. We watched it wriggle past our feet to the edge of a cliff, where it plunged into the sea in a waterfall of fire. There, beneath the waves, it was hardening, invisibly adding to the foundations of the Big Island.

Seven months into this freelancing adventure, I’m beginning to think about the cumulative effects of choices. The choices I make today don’t stand alone: they’re built on the choices I made yesterday and last month and last year. To move home after graduation. To pass up jumping for an immediate 9-to-5 job. To take seriously the gift of writing God has given me. All together, these choices start to form something: the new piece of land I am becoming.

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” It is our cumulative, grace-guided choices that determine the people we will become. Making the right choices is easier when you have a precedent on which to build. It’s less difficult to see where you’re going next time you take a leap of faith.

But building a new island is difficult when you don’t know what you’re aiming for. When setting out in a new direction, the first choice (do I trust? Do I risk? Do I sacrifice?) is the scariest. Even the best of role models can’t project what results our choices will have. So when we decide to follow God’s call, to writing, knitting, homeschooling, ministry, or something else off the beaten path, it can feel like shooting off a cliff in a stream of hot lava, wondering if we’re actually going to build something new or just get swept away in the tide.

But, once again, when the first layer is laid, the next is easier–you’ve set yourself a standard to live up to.

A friend of mine demonstrated this a few weeks ago. She interviewed for two positions, the first less desirable than the second. After the first interview went well, she accepted a job offer there. Then, suddenly, she was offered a job at the second company. Instead of bailing out on her commitment to  #1, she turned down a desirable position in order to stick to her word.

Career-builders might scoff at her brave choice. But success is more than a ladder. In choosing to demonstrate integrity, my friend sacrificed immediate gain–but set a precedent for future choices and added another layer onto her island of character. When jobs vaporize and companies fail, that rock still stands.

Of course, there’s also a second way. It’s so natural that many people, especially those in my age group, opt for this one. It’s the easy way out. When faced with a tough choice to land a great job or keep your word, to indulge yourself or honor your family, to beat the established path or trust God to lead you in His way–many people just “go with their gut” and push the long-term implications out of mind. Like Scarlett O’Hara in the wonderful Gone with the Wind, we say “I’ll think about that later.”

But Rhett (always wise) comes back to her and says, “It’s hard to salvage jettisoned cargo and, if it is retrieved, it’s usually irreparably damaged. And I fear that when you can afford to fish up the honor and virtue and kindness you’ve thrown overboard, you’ll find they have suffered.” (ch. 43). It’s hard to go back once you’ve set a precedent of taking the easy way.

So what kind of an island are you building? If the choices we make today set a precedent, do you dare to take the leap, making choices based on vision, hope, faith? Will you start building from a blueprint you can’t see?

12 thoughts on “Island-Building

  1. We do live in a selfish world and making choices isn’t always simple. Too many times, I have made the “right” choice and found myself at a dead end. I confused honor and integrity with other people’s perception of me. Eventually, I realized that gut instinct is God’s guidance and the island I am building is based on God’s blueprint for my life. When the message from my gut is confused with the one from my brain, I ask myself how I’ll perceive a particular choice from my deathbed. That usually works.


    1. Great words of wisdom, Patricia. It’s true: what will matter when we’re looking back from the end of life? Integrity or what other people thought? Sometimes in the day-to-day process of living, we lose sight of that God-sized picture–yet it’s the only one that will make sense of today’s choices.


  2. One of the choices I made — really sort of fell into — is that I’m not a career person. It’s a job. I come to work and book as soon as the day ends. I see other people working late and taking work home. No, no, no. My time off is valuable to me, and I want to be able to write. That’s more important to me than climbing a corporate ladder.


    1. Hear, hear! I think one of the hardest things for writers is finding a way to support yourself that doesn’t eat up all of your time/energy for writing. It’s hard to guard that precious creativity time–especially when other people don’t understand what you’re doing. But it gets easier once it becomes a habit, no?


  3. I am building my island, bit by bit, or as Anne Lamott said, Bird by Bird. It isn’t easy by any standard and therefore I’m challenged daily. Some days are harder and darker than others, but the journey is worth it. Lovely post, Alina!


  4. LOVE the metaphor of island building as the cumulative effect of choices we make in our lives! Trusting our gut instincts and answering God’s call is so important, both in reaching our true potential and finding happiness in the here and now. I wasted many years being what others expected of me, rather than answering my expectations of self. Kudos to you for being wise beyond your years and choosing to walk YOUR path in trust and Faith. Wishing you many blessings along the road.


  5. I’m not sure that we cannot ever retrieve the bad choices we’ve made, but certainly building a foundation and living according to what is right not what is easy sets us up to keep moving toward something we believe is true and real and meaningful. Lovely post, Alina.


    1. Sure thing, Sara–I believe that God can definitely redeem bad choices (otherwise there would be no hope for me). But we definitely make the journey easier on ourselves by making good ones 🙂 Long-term thinking is something our culture is not very wired to do. Thanks for your comment!


  6. “Excellence is not an act but a habit.” Loved that quote. It’s putting one step in front of the other, again and again, that gets you to your destination. Great article.


    1. Thanks, Cora! That Aristotle quotation really inspired me too. The movies show the results of big, momentous decisions, but really who we become is more dependent on our daily habits. Thanks for stopping by!


  7. First, what an awesome sight to witness. Second, you clearly witnessed the island creation for a reason: to lend your writer’s insight to create this inspirational post. Thanks, Alina.


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