Choosing and Creating Our Reality

In No Particular Path on August 24, 2012 at 8:29 pm

I believe in the existence of free will.  For me, nothing about life makes any sense without it.  But belief in free will isn’t necessary in order to understand about human choices.  Whether we are free to choose or not; whether there is some biological or spiritual imperative that compels us to choose a particular way, or whether each new choice is a surprise to both human and God; we nonetheless experience our actions as choices.  When I order my cup of coffee in the morning, and I decide whether to get a medium or a large; whether to get a decaf, a regular, or a blend; whether to add a pastry to the order; I am not able to feel the distinction between a free choice and a predetermined outcome.  I am only conscious of the choice I make as a choice.

More importantly, I am conscious that my choices have consequences.  If I get some caffeine in my coffee, I am aware that I may feel somewhat enervated afterwards; if I go with the pastry, I know that my blood sugar level may be affected, and in a family with a history of diabetes, it’s not a good idea to overdo that.  I take these risks because I choose to.  If I don’t feel as well as I would like later on, I can look back at my choices and understand something about why that is, and how I might want to choose in the future.

I am also conscious of possible meanings, evaluations, and judgments that I and others might make about my choices.  Do I feel good about my choices, or bad?  Perhaps I have a quick inner dialogue with myself in which I might tell me I am drinking too much coffee, that I need to eat fewer pastries and lose some weight; that I shouldn’t spend my money on such frivolities.  Perhaps I defend myself: I’m pretty healthy for a man my age; I have to die of something, after all; all things in moderation, you know.  Am I weak, courageous, foolish, wise, healthy or unhealthy?  Even these possibilities require choices.
There are, of course, some things that we do not choose.  Although there is evidence that I might learn how to become self-aware enough to consciously affect my breathing, my heartbeat, my brain waves; there is no evidence to suggest that each pulse is a deliberate choice, each firing of a synapse something I decide about, each breath preceded by a choice to breath or not.  It is also true that some things outside of ourselves have an impact on us.  If it rains, it is not because I have chosen the rain.  At the very least, I cannot experience these things as choices.

On the other hand, the things I do not choose create the necessity for choice.  Have I dressed for the weather?  Do I pay attention to my heart so that I can avoid problems or know when to seek medical treatment?  Where do I place the blame or credit for the things that happen to me?  Suppose, for instance, a tree limb falls on me and I’m injured.  I could take the blame or credit myself: I shouldn’t have walked this way; I should have heard the sound and ducked out of the way; or if I hadn’t reacted as quickly as I did, it could have been much worse.  I could blame or credit God or fate:  God must be trying to tell me something; God is punishing me for some sin, known or unknown; I’m just unlucky; or I’m fortunate it didn’t land on my head and kill me; God must have been watching out for me.  I could find others to blame or credit: I need to find out who owns this tree and sue them for negligence; this place ought to have signs warning people that there might be falling tree limbs; I will have to thank the instructor of that course I took on emergency preparation and first aid, because she taught me how to respond appropriately in this situation.

My response to the situation, moreover, is not just a choice about how to respond, it is also a choice about the meaning I create from what has happened; and a choice about the language I use to express that meaning.  And these choices build on one another, overlap, fold back into layers of choice and meaning and more choice and more meaning.  And the process continues long after the event itself has passed.  Every time I remember what happened, every time I tell the story, I will recreate the event and the meaning of it.  Memory is creative, not static.  Meaning is fluid, not fixed.  Underlying it all is choice, both conscious and unconscious.

In his 1968 book, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, Harry Browne describes freedom not in absolute terms, nor in terms of forces acting upon the individual, but in terms of the choices the  individual makes regardless of the forces acting upon him.  Paraphrasing Browne, we can define freedom as action based on our understanding of three aspects of our choices.  First there is the understanding that we can choose, that choices are always available to us.  Some of those choices may be undesirable or dangerous or ineffective.  Some may seem reasonable or desirable or better in some way than other choices.  We may be able, in any situation, to see a great many possible choices, or only a few, but there will always be the possibility – and the necessity — of choice.  After the recognition that choices exist, there is the understanding of possible consequences.  We can look at each choice (or as many as we choose to look at) and make guesses about possible outcomes for each choice.  What is the worst that I can imagine happening if I choose this way; what is the best?  The third step is to accept responsibility for my choices and the reasonable consequences of those choices.  If I can effectively negotiate these stages of choosing, then I can choose in ways that will more often lead me to the things I need and desire.  But these stages are neither simple nor obvious.

The fact that choices are always possible is not an indication that all choices are always possible.  Actually the opposite is true.  Each of us is always limited to the available choices at any moment, and those choices may be limited by our own prior choices, the actions (and choices) of others, and the circumstances of the present situation.  If I am a prisoner, I cannot simply choose to open the cell door and walk out of prison.  If I am poor, I cannot choose to buy a million-dollar mansion to live in.  If I am physically unable to walk, I cannot choose to run in a marathon.  But a prisoner can choose to act in ways that might eventually lead to his release (unless his sentence disallows that), or in ways that make his imprisonment more bearable; someone living in poverty can choose to act in ways that might lead her out of poverty; and someone who can’t walk might have the choice to enter a marathon as a wheelchair participant.  If I am a prisoner, then I have made choices that have led me here.  There is no need to judge these decisions at this point, however.  I may be a political prisoner, incarcerated for acts of conscience; or I may, in fact, be guilty of some act of criminal violence; the point is still the same:  I am a prisoner because I have made choices which led me here.  And my choices have interacted with the choices of others – the dictator who has chosen to oppress his people and outlaw dissent, the legislators who have passed the laws that I have violated.  And all these things are subject to perception, interpretation and judgment.  The dictator and the rebel may each feel that his actions are necessary for the good of the country.

My choices may be limited, also, by my knowledge or understanding, by my perceptions and judgments.  I cannot consider choices I cannot know or imagine.  Ignorance and naiveté interfere with choice.  I cannot apply for a job I don’t know exists, for example.  I may believe some choices are unavailable to me because I have learned that they are unavailable.  If I am continually told, as a child, that I am not smart enough or not attractive enough, or not strong enough, then it will take a great deal of risk on my part to choose things that would require intelligence, or attractiveness, or strength.

This combination of choosing, experiencing the consequences of our choices, creating meaning from those consequences, and choosing again is the way in which we create our reality, our personal truth about who we are, about what the world is like, and about how we should act in that world.  It is the way in which we create, define, and manage our relationships with others.  And in any moment it is everything we bring to that moment.

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