Oversimplifying the Choice

In No Particular Path on December 7, 2015 at 5:59 pm

“Your life is a result of your choices. If you don’t like your life it’s time to make some better choices.” (Attributed to something called KUSHANDWIZDOM from a site called Mentor Channel.)

I see these sorts of memes regularly. They are intended to be motivational, but, in my opinion, they are overly simplistic; and they can actually be harmful.

Based on my well over thirty years of teaching about human behavior with a strong emphasis on how choices affect our lives and the relationships we have with others, I find that such sentiments are too dismissive of the kinds of choices available to each of us, too easily used to “blame the victim,” and too quick to see every choice as life-changing.

Let’s be honest. Not everyone has access to the same kinds of choices. Those born into wealth and privilege have a far different set of choices than those born into poverty and deprivation. Those with easy access to quality, well-funded, perhaps private academy education will have a very different set of choices than those who are herded into underfunded, overcrowded inner-city public school systems. The rural middle class will have different choices from those of the urban middle class. Those who are read to and encouraged to read, those whose creativity is nurtured by others, those whose self-esteem and self-image are strengthened by family and community will have the tools to make better choices than those who have been, from birth, demeaned, dismissed, discriminated against, and subject to the worst sort of negative influences. Each of us is tasked with making the best choices we can within the specific circumstances of our lives, but those circumstances are, for the most part, not in our control. To tell someone to make better choices at least requires us to have some understanding of what “better” means in the context of that person’s life. We make choices that we believe will help us get our needs met. So forgive us if the choices we see available to us don’t satisfy your idea of what might be better.

When someone has been hurt, is suffering in some way, it’s far too easy to say, “Well, if you’d chosen better . . .” You were raped? Well, if you hadn’t dressed like that, or walked alone at night, or watched your drink more carefully, or done or not done something; if you’d only made better choices. You’re a single mother living in poverty? Well, if you hadn’t had sex with that jerk you thought you were in love with, or if you had stayed in school, or if you had used birth control even though the guy you were with didn’t want you to. You say he abused you? Well, you should have left him, you shouldn’t have antagonized him; there are lots of nice guys out there, why don’t you find one of those? You’re unemployed and don’t have any marketable skills? Well, you should have studied harder, gone to college; you could always flip burgers at minimum wage. No matter what the circumstances of our lives, there is always someone who will be willing to tell us that it’s our own fault. We could have and should have chosen more wisely, done it all differently; and if we only start right now and make “better choices” our lives will be magically better. But what about those other choices that were made for you? What about the “better choices” that might have been made by the rapist or the abuser or the people responsible for your education, the people who have discriminated against you because of your sex or your color or your beliefs or your disabilities? What about the fact that the choices they made have forever altered the choices available to their victims?

Too many of us have developed the habit of looking back over our lives and trying to determine specific choices that, if only we’d made them differently, would have made whatever is wrong with our lives all better. But life doesn’t work that way. There are no such magic moments. We might be able to identify choices that are more clearly mistakes now than they seemed at the time; but all we can say for sure about choosing differently is that something would be different, not necessarily any better. Life is about the entire path, not just one turn or another, one crossroad or fork, one hill or valley. Life is an accumulation of choices and events, about the confluence of a nearly infinite number of choices, happenings, environments, the expected and the unexpected, the tragic and the miraculous, some of which we could influence, most we could not. Make better choices? Which ones? When? How? Don’t tell me to make better choices unless you are prepared to help me see what better choices are available to me and to help me make them. Don’t tell me that my own bad choices have gotten me to where I am unless you are prepared to tell me how much you can empathize with the real experiences of my life.

Those who think of their lives as successful are prone to think that they have created their lives all by themselves; that their own choices are wholly responsible for that success. That allows them to think less of others and their choices. It can also allow them to avoid any responsibility they might have for the circumstances of anyone else’s life. It creates a culture of self-proclaimed superiority. It justifies all kinds of social, economic, educational, and cultural inequities and abuses. I’ve got mine, it seems to say, so it must be because I’m better, I made better choices.

The choices we make in response to the circumstances of our lives are, of course, important. They do make a difference. But we can never be certain exactly what that difference might be. Most people are doing the best they can to find positive ways to meet their needs; but when the healthy choices aren’t available to us and the need is great enough, we will make unhealthy choices. Telling us to make “better choices” ignores the reality of our lives and does nothing to help us see what other choices we might make.

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