Friday, December 2, 2011
"We all have choices" my mother said.
One of my mother's favorite sayings our whole life has been "We all have choices." My brother recently posted this on facebook at the request of my niece. You never know it's getting through until suddenly they say yes, they were listening. My brother is the eloquent one in the family and says it best:
"Throughout my life, I've had many mentors - my dad, martial arts instructors, teachers, friends - and learned a lot by making my own big mistakes. And each of these have taught me specific lessons, different details about how to continue to grow and change. But there is one person who taught me one lesson when I was very young. Who has throughout my entire life taught me ONE singular lesson. It's become such a common refrain that it's become sort of a joke among our family. And yet, I have recently come to realize it is THAT lesson which has become the foundation of all my other thoughts and how I've lived my life.
It didn't matter if it was clothing, dating, staying up too late, jobs or food. My mom's philosophy was unwavering: We all have choices. Which I have taken to mean: Know the implications of the options available to you, make a choice, and then accept the consequences. No excuses.
"We all have choices" sounds like a pretty basic idea, right? It's catchy, it would fit well on a bumper sticker or t-shirt. But it has far-reaching implications if you embrace it as a foundation for how to live.
The first implication is that options always exist. There are no if/then statements that are infallible. There is no set of circumstances that can result in one and only one response (we're talking interpersonal stuff here, not math). There are ALWAYS options beyond the ones that seem obvious to us.
One of the most memorable books I've read with this topic was Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Bartelby the Scrivener." One day Barteleby simply decides, "I'd prefer not to." He chooses not to work. When told to leave work, he chooses not to do that. He chooses not to eat. Eventually he dies in prison and starved to death. It's not a comedy. But it makes a good point - even the things we think of as "mandatory" are not. We always have choices, we just may not like the consequences.
Let me restate this again. There is no situation with only one response. We can choose to respond to anger with kindness, to betrayal with forgiveness. We can choose at any moment to eat differently, drink differently, dress differently. We can choose to drive on the wrong side of the road, rob a bank, or quit our jobs. There are always options.
The second implication of "We all have choices" is the reason most people cannot embrace this idea. It is the implication that WE create our lives. Where we are in life right now - our health, our jobs, where we live, our friends, every relationship - is a result of OUR choices.
Oh, I'm not blind to the fact that we are presented with various "stimuli" that create challenges for us or that may seem to bias us in a particular direction. But here's a few thoughts...
We do not control other people, but we do control how we react to them.
We do not control the genetics in our body, but we do control how we treat our bodies.
We do not control the economic status we were born into, but we do control our motivation, drive and work ethic.
We do not control the tragedies that are inflicted upon us, but we do control whether they make us stronger or destroy us.
Let me share a couple of true examples:
There were 3 brothers, born into a family where the men traditionally died of heart failure by 45. 2 of the brothers accepted "fate" and lived normal lives, both dying middle aged. The third brother ate right, exercised regularly and reduced his stress with things like yoga and meditation. He is soon to celebrate his 85th birthday.
There were 5 siblings, born into a low-income family in a bad neighborhood. 2 died before 20 from drug overdoses. 2 were in jail multiple times before ending up in prison for life on various charges. One worked odd jobs to pay his way through college, became a counselor, got married, had a great son and is a joyful positive person who has passed on that gift.
Here's where I seemingly have a big disagreement with a lot of people. I look around us and see that we are trained to be slaves. Through school, society, our upbringing, our churches, television, movies, our political structure, you name it. There is a vested interest for lots of people in controlling us. Whether it's to get our obedience, our money, our vote, our affection, there's hundreds of motivations for other people and institutions to convince us that we are powerless. That only they can tell use what to do or think. To convince us that some stimuli have only one response. Or to convince us we can only choose from within a narrow range of options. In short, that we have little to no choice about anything.
And we buy into it. The iconic 80's band Devo said it perfectly when they sang, "Freedom of Choice is what we've got. Freedom from Choice is what we want.". We find comfort in allowing ourselves to be bound by structures because it absolves us of personal responsibility for our choices (and we give up our freedom for the comfort of being "part of something."). Those structures cross every boundary. The Liberal, the Libertarian, and the Conservative, the Christian, the Pagan and the Atheist all are capable of being mindless slaves to a structure. This is not to say these structures don't have value - it is to say that for too many people, once they choose to identify themselves with one, they then shut off their minds and allow that identification to become all that they are. I don't believe in "my side right or wrong." Everyone is right sometimes and everyone is wrong sometimes.
Where was I? Oh yes, ranting... So, we are raised to give up control - to accept that we have no choices in life. Even if we manage to retain our independent thought from a raft-load of "institutions" who can benefit from our mindless loyalty, we are brought low by the biggest lie of all - that we are not responsible for anything we do.
Instead, we have hundreds of reasons for our actions:
I have ADHD. I'm bi-polar. I was abused. I was ignored. I was an only child. I was abandoned. My parents were divorced. I'm just an angry person. I was raised in a bad neighborhood. I'm an alcoholic. I'm a drug addict. I have a disease. I'm poor. It's the government's fault. The rich people's fault. The poor people's fault. The aliens from Mexico's fault. The aliens from Mars's fault.
Or, "That's just who I am."
And the biggest radioactive-monster mother of all reasons, "That's how I feel."
All of that, by the way... all those reasons... those are crap. Those are not reasons that create behavior, they are excuses we use to rationalize that how we behave is acceptable. Yes, when you are a child in a kept environment your choices are very limited. And yes, we have programming from those experiences that haunt us through our lives. But some people choose to rise out of abuse and hatred, break the cycle and become wonderful people. And some people choose to wallow in their pasts forever.
That entity that enslaves us the MOST; that entity that whispers in our ear that we have no choices, that entity that tries to convince us we are not responsible for our own lives, is not an institution. It lives inside of us. There is no jail more effective than believing you are not free.
Call it whatever you want - the horse, the Shadow, the Anima/Animus, the Id - it is basically a collection of memories, experiences, childhood traumas, beliefs, biological programming, chemical reactions, even reactions to foods we eat, that creates an impulse. Those impulses manifest as unconscious thoughts and ideas that drive our behaviors. Most of the time we self-identify these impulse as our "feelings."
Guess what? There is absolutely nothing sacred about these feelings. Somehow, at some point, we bought into this crap that if we "feel" angry, we must act upon it. That saying, "I feel X" excuses any reactions that result from that feeling. People say, "Well, I'm just an ass," or, "I'm just a bitch," as if that excuses their poor behavior and decision-making. It does not.
Feelings excuse nothing. The belief that we have no options is illusory. And the very first choice is choosing to believe that we have choice. Because our programming is so strong, we may have very little choice how we FEEL. But we have tons of options on how we BEHAVE. Including not creating situations that elicit those negative feelings in the first place.
But I digress. Everything else is details. Choosing how we spend time. Choosing our external environment. Choosing our relationships. Self-control. Awareness. These are steps along the path - they are concrete tools to help us take control of our lives. Of living from Conscious thought rather than reaction.
But the first choice is deciding to choose. It is accepting that there are always options. It is accepting that we have the power to create options and make decisions. To be fair, this is a disquieting way to live. Because it means accepting responsibility. Understanding that we each live the life we've chosen. That each person is ultimately responsible for our own success or failure. For our own happiness. Whether we believe in God, Allah, the Goddess, Cthulu or the Great Space Turtle - they have better things to do than spend each day making us happy or miserable. Whether by science or miracle, we are each possessed of life and options. Everything else is up to us.
We all have choices. What will you choose?"