When I began writing this piece, I had pretty much worked it out in my head. But then I began to challenge my own thinking. Rather than simply eliminating the whole piece, I decided to rewrite it, and it became something else altogether…
Many years ago at a work retreat at Asilomar, a speaker said, “All your time is free time. You are free to do whatever you choose. And right now in your life, you are doing exactly what you want. It’s your choice.”
“Now that is ridiculous,” I thought when the idea first hit me. It was 1972, I was working at a job I didn’t care about, and I wanted to move back to New York but I couldn’t. To me there was no freedom of choice – I couldn’t find a teaching job, I had to keep the job I had to stay solvent, and I had to stay in California because…well, because. The fact is, I could have gone back to New York, gotten a teaching job, and slipped right back into the life I had before I left. Yet when I look back at that time, I see that the speaker was correct. I was doing what I wanted; I was choosing how to live my life, and I had chosen to change it. The fact that things were difficult, and not how I had envisioned them, did not make the fact of my choices any less true.
We do what we do because we think it is the best choice for the moment, or the one that will get us what we want, or the one that agrees with our self-image. Sometimes we don’t choose, which is itself a choice. Sometimes we do things simply so we won’t be challenged, or won’t put ourselves in a position to fail. We make choices in order to avoid consequences that we don’t want to deal with, and then later we’ll justify the choice by saying, “I had no choice.”
But we also do things because our sense of ethics, of right action, compels us. A parent with three children doesn’t just up and quit a job she hates, because she has a sense of responsibility. She’s decided that what she wants to do is to be a good provider and do the best she can. This doesn’t mean it’s the only choice; it means it’s the only choice that allows living with the principles and ethics that guide her life. She might complain, bitch and moan, but if someone came along and said, “Hey, we’ll take your kids off your hands – go live a happy life with lots of stuff,” you would see her bristle. “Hell no!”
We decide how we will live based on our ethics, our sense of self, our expectations – and a host of other factors. But when we do something, it’s we who have made the choice. (Even as we say, “But, I don’t want to do this…I have no choice…”) Our choices are what give the framework to our lives. The most important aspect of this is that we have to be willing to live with and be responsible for our choices.
So now I can see that the speaker back then had definitely expressed a truth. But only one truth. Because then I asked the question, “Does a woman sitting with three dying children in a refugee camp out in the desert have a choice? Is she doing what she wants?” One would tend to doubt it, and so the idea of universal free choice gets called into question, because choice involves living in circumstances which afford you the freedom to make choices.
And when I started to think about the freedom to choose, I realized that what people in the United States (or perhaps the developed world) consider freedom of choice is actually very tightly regulated. Sure, people have many things to choose from. Just go to a supermarket and walk to the shampoos – an overkill of choices. But do we get to choose whom to vote for? Actually, not really. We only get to choose between the choices someone else decides for us. We get to choose the evil of two lessers.
The more I started to think about the idea of choices, and freedom, the more it came down to this: The only choice over which we all have complete control is our decision to be conscious. This is the most important and life-affirming choice there is. For once I am conscious, the choices I make regarding any other issue are obvious. Once you are conscious, you can never avoid responsibility – no one who is conscious would ever want to avoid responsibility, because that means one is not fully conscious. If you are fully conscious, whatever choices you do make, you do them with the knowledge that the consequences are your responsibility, and you accept them.
We live in a world in which most choices are so irrelevant to the core of our lives that it’s okay for us to make them. But when it gets down to real choice – the only truly significant one is this: Will I be conscious? Will I wake up to the truth? Will I live my life facing everything rather than avoiding? Will I be responsible for what my consciousness dictates I do, or will I just go back to sleep?
Am I awake, fully conscious? At times. But it is a full time job, and I often don’t make it. I hear myself say things that are just automatic, or unnecessary. I find myself doing something that actually has no significance or importance, just because it’s something to do. But as I work at being more awake, more alive, more conscious on a daily basis, I realize that being conscious is the only real job I have – the rest is just commentary.
Enjoy your day!