This I choose to do. If there is a price, this I choose to pay. If it is my death, then I choose to die. Where this takes me, there I choose to go. I choose. This I choose to do.– page 10, Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett
How I think about choice has made a huge, positive, impact on my life and, as will surprise no one who knows me and/or has read all of this advent series, a lot of that thinking has been helped and shaped by Terry’s work.
My teenage years and twenties were not the happiest times of my life* and I often felt that I was rudderless and without any power to steer my own course. Then the choices I had were not made freely but within an ever expanding framework of rules and demands that made it almost impossible to do the “right” thing, never mind what I would have chosen to do had it been purely down to me. I did what I thought was best for those I cared about and tried not to make more mistakes than I had to but I eventually found that I could not win, no matter what I did.
Thankfully that period of misery is now over ten years in the past. But even after I began to put my life back together I found the fact that I now did have the ability to make the choices I wanted to make almost overwhelming. Apart from finding, at the beginning, that I wasn’t entirely sure who “I” was any more I was absolutely determined that I would not allow myself to get into another situation like the one I had finally managed to get out of and the pressure of that, tied into my own inability to trust myself to get it right, was at times more than I could bear. Plus I still felt lingering guilt for having broken the vows I made that, at the time, I had fully intended to keep to the letter in order to get that power back.
I also struggled with people, some well meaning and some less so, who said “why did you allow those things to happen to you?” I didn’t know how to answer because all I heard was: you had a choice, you could have made it stop, it’s all your fault you suffered as you did. It wasn’t my fault but when those sort of words are thrown about and you’re the sort of person who assumes responsibility for situations not of your making anyway, it’s very difficult to get your brain to accept it as true. You are not responsible for how others choose to treat you.
What really made the difference was coming to truly understand (rather than just know on an intellectual level) that our lives, as human beings, are fully and entirely about choice and change. We change – physically, intellectually, emotionally – from the moment we are born to the moment we die and that change is powered by the myriad of choices we make on a daily basis. Add that to the fact that none of our choices are completely free – they are all, to a greater or lesser extent, tied to the circumstances you are in at the point the choice is made – and it becomes much easier to view them as building blocks that create us, shape us and, crucially, teach us.
There is no way to only make “good” or “right” choices in your life. Even if you only think for a fraction of a second about the number of choices you make in one day, never mind one week, you can see statistically you’ll get things “wrong”. And I’m using the quote marks on the judgement terminology because one person’s wrong can be another person’s right; what makes no sense to a person viewing a situation from the outside can be the only visible way forward to the person living in that situation. You also don’t get to sit out on choices. Ignoring the fact you need to make a choice is just as much of choice as getting on with it, you’re just farming out the result to chance and other people rather than making it your own.
Of course there is a difference in the impact of the choices you face – choosing which movie to watch is not going to have the same effect on your life as choosing a job or a partner – yet there is one thing that links them all … they don’t have to be permanent, you’re allowed to change your mind.
No can be changed to yes. Yes can be changed to no. You can say “maybe, if I can afford it next month”, you can say “I want to try this and see what happens”, you can fling yourself into something with gay abandon and then set it aside the next month with a “well at least I know it’s not for me now”. And, when you are in a difficult situation you can say to yourself “this may not be the choice I would normally want to make but given the circumstances this is the one that keeps me safe/keeps others safe/gives me time to make to make a different choice further down the line”.
I’m not saying that you don’t have to live with the choices you made, you do. There is no magic wand that can just undo them and reset the clock so you can have another go. What I’m saying is that the “you made your bed, you get to lie in it” way of thinking is unhelpful and untrue. Beds can be remade, they can be washed and cleaned and get new mattresses and new bed frames and new headboards. It may not be easy or quick and you may need help to do it but it can be done. Anyone who tells you different has a vested interested in keeping you trapped in the situation you’re trying to get out of.
All any of us can do is make the best choices we’re capable of making as they arise and, as they play out, own them and yet view them with the kindness and compassion they deserve. If they turn out well, then great. Yay us! If not, if they end up having consequences we didn’t foresee and don’t like, we can then choose to learn from them and to work on making new choices to rectify the situation at whatever point it becomes possible to do that.
Yes, it really is that simple and that complicated. It’s life.
*There were good times, of course, but I was suffering from an eating disorder through all those years, plus I experienced some extremely unpleasant periods of mental, emotional and physical abuse within that time. It all left its marks on me.