Making a choice makes us powerful. Choosing our attitude, our path, our sense of self, is how we can start to take control of our lives.
Ever since my late teens I’ve had a philosophy about choice that backed up my parents’ lessons when I was young. They always taught me that you could choose to change your behaviour, that how we behaved and acted was a choice. For instance, we often allow ourselves to behave badly around family because we know they will love us anyway. That was called out in my family – we were made aware of what we were doing so that we could decide to do otherwise.
When I was 19 and doing philosophy at university, I was introduced to existentialism. Jean Paul Sartre in particular struck a chord with his argument that we have a burden of responsibility for our lives because we have individual freedom of consciousness. Meaning that we can choose the way we feel, the way we behave, the things we do, even within a restrictive social framework. There are obviously a whole lot of things to take into account here. Some people have it easier than others; our choices might not be so stark as those facing people in extraordinary situations. Could you really tell someone fleeing the Syrian civil war that they hold personal responsibility for their lives because they have the power of choice? I couldn’t.
That said, Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, wrote about fate and freedom, working on his manuscript on scraps of paper in Auschwitz and Turkheim (a subsidary camp of Dachau). He claimed that the last remaining freedom was the freedom of choice of attitude. The freedom to choose the way you felt about a situation. The freedom to choose hope.
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Given the horrors that he went through, his ideas hold more weight for me than those of the philosophers, and they support the idea that within the bounds of extrinsic factors, you can choose your approach to life. You have, as Sartre argued, freedom of individual consciousness.
“You can cope, you just don’t want to”
This was said to me by my sister and it has stayed with me ever since. I was a single mother with a small infant who slept very little, was very colicky, didn’t feed well, and I was struggling. My sister lived with me and was an incredible support. She too would get up in the middle of the night, get me a hot chocolate and a cushion, do what she could. One time, when I was overwhelmed and having a melt down I cried “It’s too hard, I can’t cope!” Her response to me was that I could, I just didn’t want to. It sounds harsh but it snapped me out of my overwhelmedness. I reflected that actually yes, I didn’t want to have to cope. I wanted it to be easy. I wanted someone else to help me. Once I recognised this (which, incidentally, I don’t blame myself for feeling – it was, after all, pretty hard) it became easier to remind myself that I COULD cope. I WOULD cope. And I did.
This is not to say that we should never have those moments where we feel helpless and out of control – that is human, and (as with the argument for resilience) perhaps we should be working to control the situation rather than peoples’ response to it. But recognising that we have a choice in how we see the world, how we interact with it, brings power.
But does positive thinking actually help?
A lot of how we feel in our life does come down to our attitude. Shakespeare wrote about it in Hamlet.
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
I sometimes get a bit of flack for trying to be positive about the world. Which is kinda annoying if I’m honest. It takes a lot of effort to choose to be positive. To paraphrase something I remember reading once – being positive or negative about a situation doesn’t change the situation, but one way feels a whole lot better. The situations we face, whether large or small, are within varying degrees of our control. What we can control, is how we feel.
Now, I’m not saying that we have to be happy-happy about awful things. That’s unrealistic. Positive thinking is more than trying to be chirpy Pollyannas about life, it’s about being proactive, thinking that you can engender change, that you can hope for a future, that you can choose to retain your sense of self.
It isn’t easy. Important things often aren’t. But it’s worth trying. It’s worth putting in the effort.
What about when it comes to decisions about life, how do you know you’re making the right choice?
This is a bit different from the choices we make about how we see the world, but these kind of decisions and choices are also very important. Taking control of your life by making a decision about where you are going gives you power. But if we have two paths stretching in front of us, how do we decide? My mother gave me some good advice once – she said to visualise the Best Possible Outcome of each choice, and to recognise your emotional response to them as indicators of whether or not you want one outcome more. A recent decision I faced had me discussing it with my family and friends. In talking to them about the possible outcomes I realised that the consequences of a promoted position at work were ones I didn’t want at this point in my life. They didn’t tell me this, but the verbalising of my thoughts helped me figure out that the forked path in the road only had one road I really wanted to walk down.
Making choices based on what you really want in life means being honest with yourself about what you do want. It involves recognising your freedom of thought and motivation. Within the confines of the life we live, we all have different levels of choice, but we can all retain the choice of how we view the world and how we treat others. Let’s try to be true to ourselves in our choices.