Choice and What We Do
What Can We Learn?
In the past few weeks I’ve been exploring connections between seemingly unconnected areas of life – oral traditions and organizations and the arts and who we are. This week the connection is a little more obvious, although I find it to be still quite profound. I’ll let you be the final judge of that. In today’s note, I’m exploring the deep connection between how we understand choice, and what we think we can, could, or should do.
Let’s look at the idea of choice first. There are of course many topics and questions that arise even as we scratch the surface of the idea of choice. They – including the nature of choice, the existence of free-will, or all the factors of the life of a person that come to bear on their choices – are all important to address. However for our purposes, and in order to concentrate on the relationship I’m hoping to explore, I will accept the following to be true:
The idea of choice is a complex matter, but we know it exists. We know we can make a choice. We know this through interactive experience, having made many choices over the course of our lives. We may have exercised this ability to varying degrees, but have exercised it, nonetheless.
There are numerous ideas about what all comes to bear on our ability to make a choice (let alone follow through on it). There are considerations of biology (including genetics, physical and mental formation), environment (including the natural, built, and social), and the inner formation of one’s soul (including one’s thoughts, feelings, and desires). All of these come to bear on the “how” of choice-making in unique ways for each of us. This is to say nothing of the training, teaching, and experiential learning, we all experience that affects how we think about making choices. It is this latter part – how we think about choice – that I’d like to explore.
Everything is Possible
For a moment, let us pose the idea that everything is possible. Especially from an individual standpoint, this may seem rather ludicrous. One might say, “I can’t fly just because I choose to.” Of course not, we are limited in the choices we have immediate access to by many of the factors mentioned earlier. Then again, it has been seen time and again throughout history that those with a particular desire seem to find the vision, intention, and means by which to achieve their desire. For one person, flight is an impossibility. For another it is a technical challenge that can be solved.
The idea that everything is possible is not only important in the abstract, but in the practical. There have been times in my life, I have felt stuck, in a destructive cycle, or more simply uninspired. These times may bring with them a sense of catastrophe, or finality. I begin to think that I will be stuck forever, unable to break the cycle, and never again be inspired. In those moments, the idea that everything is possible can lead to a kind of breakthrough. If everything is possible, surely that includes the possibility to get unstuck, to break the cycle, and to indeed be inspired again. The idea of the possibility alone can lead to a cultivation of vision, intention, and seeking of means, towards a better outcome.
I have found it to be an immeasurable benefit to believe that everything is possible. “Things don’t have to be this way,” is a phrase I began to use as I worked through my first experience with severe burnout. The “everything” was pointed towards the cultivation of a vision of life that was better than what I was experiencing in the moment. More generally, if everything is possible, surely a good life is possible, too.
The other side of the coin is the sadder realization that if everything is possible, evil is possible, too. Selfish disregard of others, greed, vanity, pride, and other forces are evident in the world around us. With a closer look we might find varieties of such things working within us. What a horrid realization that is. If we believe that everything is possible for us, then we must conclude that all that is good and all that is evil are available for us to partake in. And here we return to the idea of choice.
You Can Do Whatever You Want
Let us continue the thought experiment to include an environment of complete freedom. What would we do if we could do whatever we wanted? In an environment of complete freedom, we might experience greater permission, or less actual or perceived limitations around our choices. What then would be the outcome? How would our choices be focused? What would they be driving towards? What would we do?
This aspect of the thought experiment is exceptionally important as we often fight for the freedom to do what we want, without much consideration of if what we want is good or not. A deeper exploration of the connection between desire and choice would be worthwhile here, and important to acknowledge. I’m not going to go into specific depth at this moment in the hopes that the connection will become clearer as we continue.
Is it Beneficial?
In a world in which good and evil are working side-by-side, where everything is possible, and we are free to do anything, there must be limitations or direction to prevent complete chaos. There are of course approaches to identifying the natural limits that exist or may arise from the realms of psychology, ethics, natural law, and the sciences, among others. Additionally, there are two questions I’ve found to be helpful in navigating my own choices within this kind of arena. Questions that are meant to guide what I would do. They are drawn from a statement in the first letter to the Corinthians attributed to Paul. They are spiritual questions having to do with the affect that choices have on our inner person and by extension our outer life.
The first question is, “Is it beneficial?” This question seems rather harmless, at first, which is part of its power. There are two deeper questions that we should spend some time with if this first question is going to mean something for us. First, is it beneficial for what? That is to what end? To answer such a question, one must have a fairly robust definition of what good is. Our sense of goodness can help frame our ultimate goal. Our innate desire for a good life, and to become really good people undergird many of our choices. How we define goodness in each of those settings can be a powerful marker for change. Second, is it beneficial for whom? How we understand our context relationally also affects much. Who must be the beneficiaries for a choice to be beneficial? Only me? Or others, too? If others, what others? Close family or friends, or must the circle be broader? These are all important questions that we are led to if we take the question of benefit seriously. And seriously – with time, pausing to reflect, and inquire, and test, and own – is what this question demands of us. Are the choices I’m making – given the ideas that I am free to do anything, and anything is possible – actually beneficial?
Does It Rule You?
The second question is like the first only explicitly pointed inward. “Does anything rule over me?” Sometimes our choices have a way of ruling over us. After making a series of choices in a particular direction the thought may enter our minds, “I am now the kind of person who makes these kinds of choices.” Whether the choices are towards good or evil, this attachment between our choice and our character as a point of evidence of who we are is not always helpful. Deep guilt and shame can arise when living in the shadow of our past choices. Deep pride can also be cultivated. Neither is good. Past choices are evidence of who we were in a given moment. Evidence is great if we have to defend our standing. However, if we believe that our spiritual standing is a function of having earned something, we land in a position that automatically fuels pride and vanity, guilt and shame, and notably not love. We may begin to say things like, “If I’ve done all of these good things right, why are these other bad things happening to me?” or, “If I’m the kind of person that makes those bad choices, I’ll never become the kind of good person I hope to become,” or alternatively “Nothing can stop me from becoming the kind of good person I want to become.” In this state, our choices – the things we do – come to rule over us. The good choices build us up and the bad choices tear us down in our perception of our own spiritual standing – who we are. This rollercoaster of a ride is not fun.
A Better Way
The better way, I think, is in the proposition of Jesus, that there is nothing for us to do to earn a particular standing before God. Our spiritual standing is secure as we trust what Jesus said and did to be true. There is plenty of effort to put forth in living a life that is reflective of trusting what Jesus said and did to be true, but we don’t earn our standing by it. We experience a kind of loving relationship unlike any other I’ve ever known – an experience of being with God. In this state, we are not having to prove that we are good or being burdened with the evidence of our evilness, but rather are simply setting our lives towards inner transformation by following the person of Jesus. Ultimately, we can have our choices come from the natural outflow of a character that has been formed in us. With all the possibilities before us, and complete freedom granted, we are empowered to do what we want as we’ve have been transformed into the kinds of people for whom what we want is really good. In this case, the choice, action, and outcome, are naturally beneficial and have little power over our being. Rather, our focus is on the kind of person we are becoming. We observe outcomes and notice our impact, not for evidence of our spiritual standing, but rather for evidence of where we might be on our journey of spiritual growth. Our standing never changes, and we learn ever more that we have a part to play in our spiritual development, with our efforts and choices focused there.
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