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Sunday, June 16, 2013

The significance of choice

                  Railroad tracks

In John Gardner's Grendel, Grendel journeys to an old priest seeking a few words of life's wisdoms. The priest summarizes his thoughts in four words which, although few in number, succinctly reveals the bedrock of human despair.

Things fade; alternatives exclude.

The first proposition formulates the most basic reality of existence – everything eventually comes to an end. Let's however focus on the more subtle wisdom contained within the second part of this aphorism: 'alternatives exclude.' The priest here is stating that man's very capacity to choose carries with it an existential reality; every decision we make is shadowed by the countless of alternatives we're forfeiting in its stead. This dilemma is often salient in major life decisions, such as our career path, or the choice of spouse. However, the wisdom contained in 'alternatives exclude' is much more profound, and indeed it applies to even the simplest of decisions we make every day. Thus, it's important to note that we'll find anxious individuals on a broad continuum of indecisiveness – from marriage to what to eat for dinner.

What follows then is the significance of choice – the enactment of our free will. There's a great comfort in avoiding choice, and scholars have spent centuries deliberating why; without a doubt, it has something to do with responsibility. Indeed, free will (the ability to choose) and responsibility go hand-in-hand. It is by virtue of our ability to choose, that we are to be held responsible for the choices we make; had we not been able to choose, how then could we be held (or hold ourselves) responsible? This responsibility of which I speak is no light burden. Consider, if you will, how the choices we make affect our life – and our after-life – for which we, alone, are responsible. Once we begin to even remotely grasp the extent to which we're responsible for who we are, who we've become, and who we're ultimately going to be, can we appreciate how convenient it is to displace that responsibility unto others: “it's not my fault I'm like this, the responsibility lies on my genes/parents/school/upbringing/community/culture.” The novel When Nietzsche Wept, which consists of a fictional 19th century interaction between Friederich Nietzsche and the famous medical doctor Joseph Breuer, revolves entirely around the displacement of choice. In it, Breuer becomes aware that his illicit obsessions are the result of having never taken his own decisions in his life, but rather 'followed the herd' (thus his desire to break away from the herd by obsessing over the taboo); his successful medical career then was not only a consequence of family pressure, but significantly, cultural standing (indeed, much like our world 100 years later, is there anything more prestigious than a doctoral position?). And so, to break free from his obsessions, Breuer had to learn to live his life for himself rather than for others and society's norms – his choices, his life.

We find this notion of 'accepting responsibility' at the core of mental health, and personal development. Indeed, master psychotherapists such Irvin Yalom and Fritz Perls concede that real personal development only begins once a person has accepted responsibility for all the choices that have led them to their state of misery – to take personal responsibility for their suffering. Yalom here makes a fantastic distinction between a therapist and an activist: if you're coming to therapy to complain about how you're suffering because of your environment (i.e. “I had terrible parents”), then what are you coming to therapy for? Go change your environment. Too often do we encounter people who, implicitly or explicitly, defer their choices – and by extension, the choices that led them to be who they are - unto others. I'll call upon two examples to illustrate my point. The first example has to do with choice of study or career. Here, we have prospective students deferring their anxiety-provoking choice of their academic journey to a number of external actors: parents tell them what to study and they follow suit; society looks favourably upon doctors, lawyers and professors so they follow the trend; friends are all entering a specific program, so they follow the group. All these, and much more, provide an immense (but existentially inconvenient) comfort which we often fail to address, just because it's so rare that we find someone whose choice is entirely their own. Another example, if we were to venture slightly deeper into the major choices which colour our lives, let’s consider the choice of belief. I remember speaking with a Muslim youth regarding his religious identity, and upon questioning how it developed, the youth uttered a response which he immediately retracted: he's a Muslim the same way Christians are Christians. Here, the youth dared to verbalize a reality which we often brush under the rug, and by doing so, caused a conflict within himself which made him question the implications of his choice – or lack thereof - in the matter (in such a state of self-awareness, the youth may indeed be the most enlightened among all of us). The youth isn't an outlier; indeed, isn't it the norm that our very choice of worldview is often deferred to that of our heritage, our culture, our friends? Yet, is there not a qualitative difference between a person who chooses his faith, and one for whom his faith is chosen for him, as a function of his heritage, culture or ethnicity? This very point, the significance of choice, is emphasized repeatedly in the Quran (for example, 81:28).

Why is it that we defer our choices? Because if we were to remove these external agents from the picture, the individual would come face-to-face with the most powerful of existential realizations: that he/she is about to make a choice, and regardless of its outcome, its consequences is entirely theirs. That's a heavy burden. And yet, lo and behold, despite the immense anxiety associated with taking a choice and carrying its responsibility, the outcome is always positive because -regardless if the choice was ultimately good or bad – it’s only through the realization of responsibility that we come to recognize our true potential. It was the student's choice of study - no one else's - and so they had no excuses; they either succeeded and the success is theirs, or they failed and the failure is theirs. As such, their anxiety was ultimately beneficial; with no one to blame, it’s just them, their choice, and its consequences.

Of course, the irony is that we remain the agents of our choices, regardless if we defer them to others or not. A man may blame his aggressive behaviour on his abusive childhood, but it doesn't absolve his choice of beating his son. Similarly, an adolescent may face enormous pressure from his parents to enrol into medicine, yet it's ultimately his choice to follow that path. In both cases, both the aggressive father and the obedient son may blame their parents for their current predicaments, however they both carry the burden of having made the choice. No one else carries the burden of our choices, not even the devil: “And the shaitan shall say after the affair is decided: Surely Allah promised you the promise of truth, and I gave you promises, then failed to keep them to you, and I had no authority over you, except that I called you and you obeyed me, therefore do not blame me but blame yourselves[...]”(Quran, 14:22).

This topic deserves much more than the space it was allotted, and indeed volumes have been written on the significance of choice and responsibility – a topic which formulates the foundation of ethics, justice and accountability. Before I conclude, let us quickly remind ourselves of the importance of tawakkul, a concept which denotes the reliance on God. Tawakkul is oftentimes misunderstood as leaving everything to Allah; this is false in light of the previous discussion and the ayat I highlighted above, as such an understanding categorically dismisses our free will. Instead, tawakkul signifies leaving the results up to Allah, in the sense that once you've made your choice and accept full responsibility for it, then rest assured that if your intentions were for the sake of Allah (seeking his pleasure, for example), you have nothing to fear – whatever happens with your choice, happens in your best interest. On us is the responsibility of choice - to Allah are the results. Again, to reiterate, this means you can't just avoid making decisions, or defer your choices to culture, family or friends; in these cases, you're relying on the sanctity of others to help you bear your burden, rather than the One for whom it is nothing to bear.

To conclude, the onus is on us to make decisions, but what happens with them is out of our control. Renew your intentions and make decisions; this is your responsibility, which you alone must carry, and no one else.

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