Choice: it is, perhaps, the single, most important determinant in how our lives turn out; in how we plough a furrow through this world. Yes, some people, often through fate of birth, are born to a life of enhanced opportunity with an array of choices before them, whilst others are born into a ready-made obstacle course, with pre-shrunken choices. But even when our opportunities seem limited and choices thin, there always exists a vat of possibility from which we can create a menu of choices, including: ‘I may’, ‘I might’, ‘I must’.
When we lose our ability to make choices, we are damaged. A recent study found that one of the worst impacts from spending time in prison resulted from the chronic loss of free choice (Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge). This research found that removing choice induced significant personality change. It described prisoners wearing of a mask of invulnerability and portraying emotional flatness to cloak the horror of having had their choices removed. Such behaviours might help the prisoner survive their jail time, but were found to be counter-productive for their lives upon release; they became characteristics difficult to shake off.
Freedom is that ability to choose for oneself – even if the choices selected are daft and mistaken – and wisdom is the ability to learn from these choices. Oh to be wise! But wouldn’t it be boring to be wise all of the time? Especially when it relates to choices that do no harm. If I want to wear an outfit with a large printed pattern that makes me look like a pair of curtains, or multi-coloured trousers that befit a circus clown, or white opaque tights that are supposedly the style-preserve of six year old girls (all of which I’ve done, and been laughed at for) then I can. It’s my choice; avert your eyes.
However, we get frustrated at people for the choices they make; even though, by and large, it is none of our business. Proffer advice (if you’re asked) and then stand back and let them get on with it. If they end up with egg yolk squired on their face (like me this morning when I bit into my morning roll in a café – it’s true, I really did) then be ready with the emotional equivalent of a wet flannel. How much egg yolk needs to get squired before we learn? With me, I reckon a lifetime’s worth. I wonder if it’s partly down to naïve thinking that: ‘this time it will be different’ – a form of open-eyed optimism to neutralise hard-baked cynicism? Perhaps fear drives us to repeat bad choices, in a case of, ‘better the devil you know’. Sometimes we make the same choice over and over simply because we are downright contrary, or, as it’s said in Ireland, ‘thran’. That wonderful word used to describe a headstrong being (‘I’m darned sure I’m doing the opposite of what you’re telling me to’), the one who tears up the steps of the high diving board despite being told the pool below has been drained. I’ve landed in an empty pool may times. And there is nothing quite like politics to divide people over the choices they’ve made. Instead of each side being certain that the other half of the country has made a preposterous, outrageous, absurd choice, shouldn’t we be happy that people have the freedom to make their own irrational choices and vote for peculiar people and policies?
I take my choices for granted. I discount how much choice, in fact, I really have. I tend to think of choices as clear decisions that require an action. They might be small choices (a menu selection at a restaurant, what pair of jeans to buy in the January sales) or seemingly major choices (moving house, accepting that job, deciding what your answer will be when s/he goes down on one knee). Of course, all of those decisions matter, big and small, but the most important choice that we all have – whether rich or poor, liberated or incarcerated a cell – is the choice as to how we manage our thoughts. That is the fundamental choice, and maybe the most difficult, for we don’t just make that choice once, we have to make it day after day. That is what I am reminding myself of today: that my attitudes are choices, my reactions are choices, and my choice of internal soundtrack is mine alone.
I May, I Might, I Must, by Marianne Moore
If you will tell me why the fen
appears impassable, I then
will tell you why I think that I
can get across if I try.