There are some things in our lives that we don’t get to choose. I didn’t choose to be born bipolar or bisexual. People close to me didn’t choose how they were born, either. Naturally, others will treat those things as if they are choices, saying things like “just try being the gender you were born with a little longer” or “you just need to do X and you won’t be sad anymore” or “have you tried not being gay?” I hope there’s no need for me to elucidate on just how awful that ‘advice’ is. And I don’t want to make this about that. I felt it was worth saying from the outset, however, that with all of the words that follow regarding choices, I’m focusing on how we as individuals face the responsibilities that are ours every day, and the choices we make regarding those responsibilities. And while I can’t choose to not be bipolar any more than another person can choose whether or not to have been born in a body that doesn’t match who they are, when it comes to how we handle our day-to-day lives and our relationships with others, every single one of us does have a choice.
Everyone has a choice. Everyone can, and must, choose who they want to be. It may be one large overarching choice, or it can be a series of small choices that lead us to being who and what we are. There can be obstacles that make a particular choice difficult, or perhaps even obscure certain choices. At the end of the day, we are what we choose, consciously or not. And when we choose, there are ramifications of that choice, for better and for worse.
One of the biggest challenges that come with making choices is when we’re faced with choices that are new to us, outside of our comfort zones, or challenge our identities. There’s a lot of advice that people will try to sell you about not being afraid to make choices. You’ll hear things like: “Follow your dreams!” “Be bold!” “Seize the day!” Not unlike some of the other advice mentioned above, such pithy platitudes tend to be the opposite of helpful. It creates and reinforces the erroneous idea that these things are simple and straightforward. Sometimes they are — “do I toast a bagel or pour a bowl of cereal” is a pretty straightforward choice. So many other choices, though, may seem simple, when in fact they deserve at least a moment’s pause and consideration before we commit to the choice, and accept the consequences.
Clear, consistent decision-making isn’t something that we’re born knowing how to do. It takes practice. The more you do something, the better you become at it and the more ease you experience while doing it. Making decisions is, in that way, not unlike training to play a sport or learning to speak a language. It has to be done over and over. As we grow, decisions we make contribute to who we see ourselves as being, and the course that our life begins to take. And the more contributions are made towards that self-image, of both our present and future selves, the more the decisions that follow tend towards those selves.
So what happens when we try to choose something new?
Some of us fall into patterns that are bad for us. Others learn to play it safe — stick only with what “works”, what is known, even if that way doesn’t really advance any of your goals or bring you closer to accomplishing anything significant. Whatever it might be, our brains forge neural pathways associated with a set or series of choices, and our thoughts and decision-making fall into those pathways. They have their own gravity. Like the most well-worn groove on an old record attracts the stylus of a record player, our perceptions and analysis of our choices are pulled into familiar ways of thinking that, in my experience, can often lead us away from a better path forward and into stagnation or, worse, a downward spiral.
This is why it can be downright terrifying when we come to the conclusion that we need to try something new. It threatens our world-view and our state of mind. Humans are highly adaptable; we can adjust to just about any situation. We can acclimate to high altitudes, working in zero gravity, travelling to the deepest part of the ocean, and so on. Our minds are no different: given a state of affairs existing for a prolonged enough period of time, and the human mind begins to accept it as ‘the way things are’. We create a narrative for our present circumstances, and assign ourselves a role within it. The days roll on. The groove gets deeper. Our choices almost seem to make themselves.
And then, when something changes, when an event occurs that shakes things up, or there’s a moment of clarity regarding what was a toxic or untenable or stagnating situation, the idea of choosing something different, something new, rattles our cage and sets our teeth on edge. It feels like we’re doing something dangerous, something potentially catastrophic, just thinking about it. Hell, even writing on the subject somehow feels provocative, and the thought keeps occurring that maybe I should just pitch the whole damn thing and watch The Expanse again instead.
Our brains will actively resist us because the thought patterns are new and unforged. They’re not familiar. They’re not “safe”. Even if the current situation is ineffective or unsustainable, it’s what we know, and therefore it is “safer” than choosing something new. We may even find ways to reason ourselves into continuing to make those ineffective or unsustainable choices when it’s clear that making a different choice is either morally correct or will yield better, more progressive results.
That’s the thing. It’s the most frustrating, challenging, and ultimately rewarding aspects of working to make better, healthier choices for ourselves. We get to define who we are. In spite of the aspects of our lives that are out of our control, regardless of happenstances of biology or circumstance that were defined before we took our first breath, every day, every moment, is an opportunity to make at least a small tweak in the course of our lives. Some of those tweaks are more difficult to make than others; it’s the difference between “I’m going to have the spicy thai thing instead of a salad today for lunch” and “I’m going to be honest about something I’ve been ashamed of for a long time.” One is just a potentially scary experience for your tastebuds and may require a lot of extra hydration; the other could throw your entire life as you know it into upheaval.
But it’s still your life.
And as long as you are alive, you get more and more opportunities to make better and better choices.
You’re not always going to get it right. Because in addition to being alive, you’re human. Unless this is being read by some nascent upswell from the Singularity hidden somewhere in Amazon’s servers, in which case, hi we’re pretty wasteful and petty little shits most of the time but a lot of us are really nice once you get to know us so please don’t wipe out our entire race thanks? Being human means you’re fallible. You’re imperfect. And that’s okay. If you were perfect, there’d be no room for improvement. You’d have nowhere to go. And you’d be just as inscrutable to us mere mortals as we would be to you. But since so much of consumer culture tries to sell us on this or that image of “perfection”, we often find ourselves acting out of fear that we will move further away from our particular flavor of that illusion if we make some new or different choice.
And yes, you might experience a setback in pursuit of whatever it is you personally want to achieve. Hell, a choice you make might involve giving up that pursuit entirely, because it’s an unsustainable journey, or the path which would lead you there is unhealthy for you or someone you love. There are consequences to every choice we make. Even if the choice you make is to do nothing! “Nothing will happen right now if I do nothing, but I’ll keep feeling shitty and miserable.” Guess what, that’s still a consequence. Sometimes, doing nothing is the right choice, and it can be very difficult to make that choice in a situation where you feel morally or otherwise compelled to do something to make a difference. That’s all part of the horror and wonder of the human experience: seeing your choices, sussing out the consequences, and then committing to your choice.
Stepping out of the pattern of choices you know into uncharted territory can be a harrowing, earth-shattering experience. There’s a reason why a lot of people don’t do it. But if we don’t make the choice to challenge ourselves — if we don’t make apply our thoughts actively to weighing our options, considering the potential outcomes, and then making a choice that will move us in a better direction, even if it scares us to do it — what about us, and our lives, and our world, will change?
You won’t change.
I won’t change.
Nothing will change.