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Choices and choosing

by Robert Docter, Editor-In-Chief –

Charlie Brown is standing in some recently fallen snow trying to appear disinterested in his surroundings. He has one hand behind his back. Lucy is walking by. She stops, thinks for a moment and then says to Charlie Brown: “You may choose, if you so wish, to throw that snowball at me…you may also choose, if you so wish, not to throw that snowball at me….”

Getting squarely in his face, she shouts: “Now, if you choose to the throw that snowball at me, I will pound you right into the ground!”

Walking away, she says: “If you choose not to throw that snowball at me, your head will be spared.”
Charlie says to himself as he throws the snowball away: “Life is full of choices, but you never get any.”

I guess Charlie feels powerless. He ignores the reality that the person with the most choices is the person with the most power. No choices. He’s prevented, he believes, by externals from making a choice, and fails to realize that he has already chosen. The externals in our lives—the job, the family, the fears of imagined consequences, the self-imposed limits—all the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts,” all the “can’ts” and “musts” we manufacture as cop-outs are nothing more than change resisters. For Charlie, the consequent inaction has become a passive choice, not a conscious decision.

Of course, some among us seem to leap to impulsive choices based on feelings or urges without much thought whatsoever. Just snap your fingers and “do it,” they say. Their rationalized “hunch” tells them: “I deserve this—I’ve been so good all week”—or, “this would make me so happy, and it looks wonderful,” or “I’ll never get this price again; it’s a tremendous bargain”—or almost any other rationalization that, for the moment, provides some justification for a decision.

That was Charlie Brown’s dilemma when he picked up the snowball in the first place. “It will be so much fun—it’s a traditional boy-girl act—Lucy will be so mad.” Charlie failed to examine at the outset even the short-range consequences let alone the long-range aftereffects of his decision. It took Lucy’s firm identification of them before he was able to decide that the gain for the action was insufficient to merit the pain of the consequence.

Failure to get the mind into gear and acting only on feeling in a decision-making situation is a clear indicator of immaturity.

A rationalization is an ego defense mechanism. It’s the brain’s way of resisting damage to the ego when one acts on feeling rather than making a careful, intelligent, thoughtful decision.

When the brain guides the decision-making process it overrides feeling and plays a censoring role.

Culture makes a significant impact on our choice making. Western culture focuses on individualism, personal autonomy, and freedom. Eastern culture emphasizes community, cooperation, moving effectively toward group goals. In this country, the salad bowl nature of our society has hundreds of examples of cultural difference.

They reveal themselves in the values by which individuals reflect a cultural standard. These values form the foundation for choice making systems. The sad part of this comes from the recognition that most people don’t have the slightest idea what their values are. Therefore, their choice making seems often based on systems of rules and directives handed down by parents or by some figure granted status as a parent surrogate. These rules are usually based on matters of unexamined tradition rather than directly on a value system.

In their delightful book, I Never Knew I Had a Choice, Gerald and Marianne Corey pose a series of questions to help the reader begin to see life as a series of choices rather than as a continual adjustment. They suggest you stop and think of the ways you’ve stopped growing and the dimensions of your willingness to re-invest in some aspect of personal growth. They ask:

What do you want for yourself, for others, and from others?

What aspects of your life are working for you?

What is not working in your life?

How would you like to be different?

What are possible consequences if you do or do not change?

How will your changes affect others in your life?

What range of choices is open to you at this time in your life?

How has your culture laid a foundation for the choices you have made?

How might your cultural values either enhance or inhibit your ability to choose something different?

Marianne Corey writes: “My religious faith has always been a positive force in my life. Sometimes religious people suffer from feelings of guilt and fears. When this is the case, religion ceases to be a positive and powerful force in one’s life. Religion helps me with an inner strength on which I can rely and that helps me overcome difficulties that life presents.”

For me, the pattern of life urged by Jesus becomes the touchstone—the measure by which I make choices. While far from perfect in adhering to his model, on the whole, it has kept me focused and provided me with criteria by which I can examine and take the measure of various choices before choosing. As I find myself in what Gail Sheehy calls “the Age of Integrity,” I consider my spirituality a vital contribution to that which makes me complete and guides my choices.

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