One would think, considering the headlines of the day, that the most significant choice facing us today has to do with elected and appointed leadership of the few over (or for) the many: dictatorships, democracies, courts, political parties, religious expression, economic and territorial imperatives, and varying definitions of terrorism.
These apparent choices, however, are just the tip of the iceberg, belying the many small choices we make on a daily basis that lead to those overwhelming global choices, whether or not we are consciously aware of the connections at the time.
For example, what is the distinction, if any, between personal choice and social responsibility?
I find myself scratching my head in wonder and disbelief and dismay at how thorny this whole question of Big Choices has grown. Does fate override choice, for example?
Unable to come up with a satisfactory answer to the big questions, I have decided instead to focus on small choices with a lower case “c” that seem within the scope of individual action, of my control and decision making regardless who wins the big battles:
- choosing to be civil, even when I do not understand the point of view of the other
- choosing to look a homeless person in the eye as I pass him on the street, or acknowledge her existence
- choosing to share the road, instead of continuing to be the “Boston driver” I was bred to be, with a universal right to own the road
- choosing to say both Israel and Palestine in the same breath, regardless of the overwhelming pressure to speak only one name or the other, and to face real consequences and potential shunning whichever name I mention
- choosing to say “I love you” only if and when I mean it, and then to say it often
- choosing to find the good intention lurking in the hurtful words of an adversary, or simply of someone who drives me nuts
- choosing to be happy to find myself a minority of a different sort living in Hawaii – neither native Hawaiian nor Asian, nor part of the more racially different mainland oriented military presence
- choosing not to give up on my body, even though I am fast approaching seventy years old; choosing to believe sincerely that age “ain’t nuthin’ but a number”
- choosing health, even though family script says I should be sick or dead with cancer by now
- choosing to notice the exquisite sunrises and sunsets and rainbows, while not denying the trash and bi-modal extremes of wealth and poverty on the ground
- choosing to explore the little nooks and crannies of my mind, as well as of my little neighborhood: open to constant surprise in all the stories tucked away behind building facades in need of remodeling, and roads in need of repair
- choosing to believe that no God (or perhaps a very unusual one indeed) would actually choose to impose suffering on its creation, just as no ordinary parent would choose suffering for his or her children
- choosing to believe that the possibility of free will, even if it means the possibility of horror, is an inexpressible act of love
- choosing to believe that even those who hate me, or fail to understand me, are actually governed by their fear for their own safety and survival; and to believe that fear is fundamentally grounded in good intention gone awry
- choosing as a supervisor to catch people doing something right and acknowledge them, instead of trying to catch people doing something wrong and punish them
- choosing to love my family, even when and even though I do not share, and perhaps do not understand, their world view
- choosing to save the little moth trapped in the shower, even as I spread toxic vinegar to stop the ant trail in the critters’ food bin
- choosing to walk for the cure, even though I would have enjoyed sleeping in
- choosing to put the cell phone down three hours a day, so I can explore other areas of my mind and heart
- choosing to say I’m sorry, rather than blaming everything on everybody else
- choosing to forgive myself for not knowing better and doing better sooner
- choosing not to give up on certain family members, even though all the facts say I should
- choosing to expect absolutely nothing, and to be open to absolutely anything
I have so many choices to make! At every turn, every moment of every day. Choosing the big stuff – like a President or Senator or a place to live or a doctor or a bank or an insurance company – that’s nothing compared to being responsible for my personal choices each time I encounter another being on my way to understanding the nature of choice with a capital “C.”
On a more esoteric (and perhaps more controversial) level, there are some who believe that not only dicey issues like sexual orientation, but also fixed categories like skin color, ethnicity, religion, and gender are actually choices as well on some deep level. There are others who would even go so far as to say that natural disasters are chosen or consciously imposed, and that people belong to a chosen, and therefore divinely favored race or culture or academic discipline or religion. Still others feel that poverty is chosen, the result of poor choices in this life or another.
In the political domain, there are those who believe that the result of national and international elections (or more crassly stated, simple grabs for power) are predestined by God or fate; and that this power, taken or given, is a reward for faithfulness, or a punishment for the sins of the fathers and mothers since the beginning of time. For example, some believe strongly that black people all over the world bear the mark of Cain, punished for killing his brother Abel in Old Testament times, based on Judeo-Christian myth and history. Furthermore, from that same tradition women are predestined to suffer as punishment for Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden.
Some lesser-known theories would even argue that human beings were placed here on this planet as an outpost prison of another civilization because our ancient alien forefathers committed crimes in some other area of the universe, and we have to stay here until we get it right.
What is the true nature of choice, really? With the cards stacked so definitively and unfavorably before birth for a clear majority of humanity, how far do we go, how far can we go in arriving at the true meaning and the true expression of choice?
As for the larger questions, I believe personally that we may have something to say ahead of time about the family we join in our lifetime. But once here, we are stuck with certain gifts and challenges like skin color, genetic history, sexual orientation, and mental and artistic capacities. All of these are open to alteration, of course (by one method or the other!), but these fundamental categories, including economic and social status of the family of origin, as well as religious or spiritual orientation, create the infrastructure of our life’s opportunities and challenges. To paraphrase James Baldwin, “You can’t do anything in the world until you deal with your Mama (and Papa).”
When all is said and done these fixed categories – these apparent limitations to choice – anchor us and provide a frame of reference for all we think and do, as well as for all we fail to think and fail to do. Categories also offer opportunities for excitement and wonder and mastery as we learn to revel in them or overcome them. Otherwise, like the stratospheric skydiver, we would be in total free fall without knowing which end was up, spinning out of control until we managed to control our fear first, so then we could make reasoned choices and survive the fall home.
Thank goodness for being stuck with certain apparently immutable categories! Who would I be without them?!! And even now, given the remote possibility that I might even have chosen my characteristics in advance, as some mystics and quantum physicists say, I can still claim my limitless possibilities through the act of making daily choices with a lower case “c.” And if I am not able to arrive at such sublime mastery in this particular moment, then I’ll play with other probabilities and spin off variations on a theme in my dreams and nightmares and perhaps even other lifetimes of wonder!
Of course I will vote for my list of public choices with a capital “C” in November! But between now and then, and after then regardless of the outcome of these elections, I will vote, by my every private choice in every small moment of my day, which kind of world I wish to inhabit. Who knows, maybe one day or year or decade from now, those choices might become a party platform!