“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
― Jean-Paul Sartre
Humans posssess the gift of choice, but we’ve been cursed with linear time, memory, humiliation, and regret all working against us. It’s hard to choose when you might make a mistake, and it’s hard to make a mistake when you can’t go back. It’s easier to go with the flow, let fate take its course, let Jesus take the wheel, and let people made of stronger stuff than you choose the course. Better to simply forget you ever had a choice in the first place, right?
Most of our choices are considered arbitrary or unimportant. What color shirt to wear, what to have for dinner tonight, read a book or watch a movie, coffee or tea, text back or not. We make those without thinking much. These choices are more like habits and are made without us even being conscious of them, but too often we make our big choices this way too.
We do what we are used to, what is easy, what everyone else is doing or expects us to do. The jobs we take, the things we buy, the debt we rack up, the friends we make, the way we vote, the way we raise our kids, the way we treat people, the way we let people treat us, these are just a few of the choices people make every day without a conscious thought. And every day we lie to ourselves and say “that’s just the way it is. I have no choice”.
The truth is there is always a choice and only you can make it, or not, and no matter what you decide, or don’t, you are responsible.
Sometimes both options cause you pain, sure. Sometimes the pressure of biology, psychology, or society is too great, sure. Sometimes it is your own fear that is getting in the way. Sometimes you feel too connected to family or faith to see a choice but look closer, look here it hurts, where there is shame, where the unthinkable exists, and you’ll see there is most certainly is. There is always a choice.
I’m not talking about the legal definition of freedom or freedom from morality, what I’m talking about goes beyond all that. I am talking about you recognizing that you are free no matter what anyone tells you. No one can reduce you to one course. Even when the choice is life and death, you still have a choice.
“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.”
― John Steinbeck, East of Eden
A friend of mine, J, once told me a story in which another friend of his was lamenting over her station in life. She was sad that she had been so unlucky and had gotten pregnant and become a single mother while she was young. She hadn’t been able to finish high school, go to college, or work in a field that paid better wages and now she was struggling. While J was sympathetic to her situation, he didn’t see her as entirely blameless in it.
She had made choices that led her along the path she’d lived. She’d chosen not to use protection when she and her boyfriend became sexually active. She’d chosen to have her baby and to keep her baby. She’d chosen not to seek help from the father through the court system or other means. She’d chosen not to pursue her education, even part-time. She’d chosen not to seek help from friends, family, or social programs. She may have been impacted by family, society, education, and peer pressures, but she’d had some choices. He told her all this, and she couldn’t accept it.
Granted, this probably wasn’t a good time for J to inform his friend of her responsibility and blame, but in his defense, he thought he was helping. He thought he could show her that at any time she could take control of her life and change things. He wanted to show her that she’d had a choice all along and still did, she only needed to make it. He thought she would understand and maybe even thank him. Instead, she lashed out.
I believe at that moment his friend was confronted with anguish and anxiety. She was faced with guilt and regret and shame. Her choices had been hard ones, I’m sure, and she had been afraid too, I’m sure, and my guess is she found it easier to choose not to make them. Then she convinced herself that all of her choices had been taken from her.
We all do this. We lie to avoid regret. We lie because we are lazy. We lie to hide our cowardice, our weak wills, and our mistakes from ourselves. We give away our free agency because we’d rather do what is easy and never have to deal with what we should’ve, could’ve, or would’ve when there no chance to change it.
“To be or not to be. God’s gift to animals is they don’t get a choice.”
― Chuck Palahniuk, Zombie
A few weeks I watched an episode of Hate Thy Neighbor in which a Christian “hate preacher Ruben Israel” spreads intolerance and homophobia in the guise of helping his fellow man reach heaven. Every time his sermon was rejected he would announce that “a choice had been made” to put the onus of future damnation back on the condemned.
Of course, I don’t agree with this man’s message—me being a gay myself—but the phrase tickled me. At first, I went around repeating it to make a mockery of the man, but I grew to like it after a while. Every time I said it I saw clearly that I had indeed made a choice and the more I saw the choices I made, the more I could see opportunities in which I could make more choices, and it has been liberating, exciting, and terrifying.
Now that I can see it, I can’t stop seeing it. In my head, I hear a running monologue of choices I am making all the time.
(I’m choosing to write this now, to write about this now. I’m choosing to write from my phone because I did not choose to write this last night. I am choosing not to be upset about that and to continue writing these posts the day of because the pressure helps me think and a daily habit helps me grow.)
I’m not saying you always have the choices you want or that it’s easy to make choices. I’m not saying your choices aren’t limited by your surroundings, your upbringing, your education level, how much money you have or need, where you live—when you live—the color of your skin, or your gender. I’m simply saying you have at least two options at every moment. I’m saying you have some say in the course of your life and some responsibility for where it has been. I’m saying you need to harden your will, wake up your mind, let go of what you must and take control of what you can.
I’m saying you must give up this illusion that you are trapped and powerless.
Something can always be done. We may be denied any do-overs. We may he asked to make choices before we know better. We may make choices and then change our minds and find ourselves in a world we regret, but the ability to choose is worth it. You may not be able to go back there is always another move you can make. They can never pin you down or take away your freedom. You have to choose to give it away. Luckily, you can always choose to take it back.
Freedom of the mind and will is something that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. We have the power to examine our base instincts and harmful patterns and override them if we choose. We have the power to choose our fate and with lives so short and time moving so fast, why would you ever—no matter how terrible or difficult it is—want to give that up?
“Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”
― John Steinbeck, East of Eden
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