Simple question reveals life’s hardest choices

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at

The story is a classic in our family.

He was a young man, about 25 years old. My father watched him gather his tools after installing carpet in our home.

“You’ve done a good job,” my father said.

The young man thanked him.

“You’ve laid a lot of carpet,” my father commented, after inspecting his work.

“Yes sir, I sure have.”

“So, how long does a piece of carpet like this last?” Dad inquired, as much to make conversation as to ask for information.

“Well, sir,” the fellow said, smiling, “I don’t mean to sound sassy, but let me put it this way: How many bites are in a sandwich?”

Dad returned the smile. “Enough said,” he laughed. “I get your point.”

Yet long after the young carpet-layer had gone, his philosophical statement remained — haunting, pricking, and prompting all sorts of thoughts, analogies and applications for my father and now for me.

Just how many bites are there in a sandwich?

As many or as few as we decide, I guess. Life is put together pretty much like that, my family has learned. Similar questions were often asked of my father:

How long does it take to get through the grief of a death, or a divorce, or the loss of a job?

How long does one keep trying to make a troubled marriage work?

How long do we push our children when we see them stuck in the shadow of their potential?

How long does it take to get through the empty-nest syndrome and reinvent our reconfigured lives?

How long do we keep forgiving family members or friends before we “wear out” or become too calloused to love?

The answer, if we’re really honest, could be: How many bites are in a sandwich?

No one really knows. It’s different for different people. You can make it as long or as short as you decide.

There are some things in life for which there are no patterns or guidelines, we discovered. So many things depend upon one’s own individuality.

Dad once observed that we have dietary principles and suggestions for just about everything, except one: How many bites are in a sandwich? That’s one thing that’s negotiable, he contended. You can take as many or as few as you like.

In our daily living, the answers to hard questions are often negotiable. Although our pain may be unavoidable, we can choose how long we tolerate, suffer, or delay moving through a difficult situation.

How long do we endure? Some losses are acute, with quick endings and formal farewells. Others are more chronic, with no clear-cut end in sight where small, yet painful daily adjustments faithfully remind us of what could have been.

The loss can be quickly gulped or thoughtfully processed. Over-analyzed or simply accepted.

When do we give up? When do we press on? When do we accept? When do we decide to heal?

Our pace and our mindset are choices we each must make.

Just how many bites will it take?