As humans, we have an ambivalent relationship to personal freedom. As Theodore Zeldin writes in his charming and wise survey, An Intimate History of Humanity,
The world is still full of people who, though they have no recognized slave masters, see themselves as having little freedom, as being at the mercy of uncontrollable, anonymous economic and social forces, of of their circumstances, or of their own stupidity, and whose personal ambitions are permanently blunted thereby. The modern descendant of a slave has even less hope than a sinner, who can repent; the impotent, trapped human being can see no comparable instant cure.
Few people in the world are currently slaves or serfs, he points out, “but to think one’s life finished, or that it is a failure, is to suffer from the same sort of despair which afflicted people in the days when the world believed it could not do without slaves” (page 7).
What is the appeal of denying our power over our own lives, why do we fear the ability to choose for ourselves? There is a comforting absolution in saying, “I can’t.” I have felt it often and even succumbed to it at times. But if that surrender is not tempered with the wisdom to know the difference between the things we can and cannot change, that absolution comes at a terrible price. This denial of our ability to influence the course of our life is always accompanied by those toxic twins, despair and blame. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins compared despair to the dead and putrefying meals of buzzards, and he vowed that he would not feast on this “carrion comfort” of despair, the impulse to utter the weary cry, “I can no more.” No, he says, “I can”; I can do something, and I can choose to continue to live in this difficult world. (“Carrion Comfort,” Gerard Manley Hopkins)
If we do fall prey to that carrion comfort of despair, and it’s not our fault, then it stands to reason that our misery and failure is someone else’s fault. Blame is the assertive companion to passive despair. We can lash out in anger and burn with resentment, accuse and condemn those we believe contributed to our circumstances.
While every age has had an uneasy relationship with human agency (starting with the war in heaven), today those voices denying the ability to choose for ourselves seem particularly bitter and accusatory. In this time of unparalleled opportunity and broad range of choices in everything from bath soaps to college majors, it all can become too overwhelming; far easier to take refuge in “I can’t and it’s your fault.”
None of this is to diminish the often crushing opposition people suffer from. There are a multitude of things we cannot choose, and we are sometimes forced to do things against our will, or prevented from doing things that are. We cannot choose the manner of our birth or death, many of our health issues, or the choices of our parents and children.
But I wish to focus on those things we do have power over, specifically three things that I have noticed are decisive influences on our happiness: how we see the world, our behavior, and our faith.
Strong emotion doesn’t come from the facts of our circumstances so much as the stories we tell ourselves about them. A person will gladly drive hours to dine with a dear friend, but complain bitterly about a fifteen minute drive to a budget committee meeting. When our boss comes to us with a new project, we will be happy and eager to do it if we believe he has great respect for our abilities. Or we will be resentful if our story is he takes us for granted and wants to push off onto us unpleasant tasks. Which one of these is “right”? That depends a lot on us, actually. Through or beliefs we color other peoples’ perception of us, and that in turn colors our own perceptions, in a feedback loop. We can break or change that feedback loop, and in so doing, attract people who reinforce our beliefs about ourselves, repel those who do not, and in the process actually substantially create the reality we buy into.
The next thing we can control is our behavior. Absent certain extreme cases, we can choose whether to engage in certain behaviors. It is true that in certain addictions, we can become so caught in the grips of it that we no longer have meaningful agency. But even in this case, it starts with a choice to indulge in the behavior, and more importantly, we can choose to heal and do the difficult work of freeing ourselves from the addiction. On the issue of homosexuality, you will sometimes hear people say that sexual orientation is not chosen. I agree, but hasten to add that sexual behavior of every kind is a choice.
Sometimes people will get angry when I say this, saying they cannot control the expression of their sexuality. Many songs, movies, and TV shows celebrate the passion and loss of control in a love affair, but in fact our society does not actually believe sexual expression cannot be controlled. If it did, rape and pedophilia would not be a crime. Whatever difficulties the perpetrators of these crimes may be suffering from, the law rightly recognizes and punishes these actions as crimes. And if that is true in these extreme cases, then it is certainly true in those sexual behaviors that are legally permitted but still morally wrong.
Finally, we can choose our faith. We cannot choose what is true or false, and we cannot choose the consequences of our actions, but we can choose what we believe in and aspire to. As Terryl and Fiona Givens write in their sensitive and surprisingly moving book The God Who Weeps,
Whatever sense we make of this world, whatever value we place upon our lives and relationships, whatever meaning we ultimately give to our joys and agonies, must necessarily be a gesture of faith. Whether we consider the whole a product of impersonal cosmic forces, a malevolent deity, or a benevolent god, depends not on the evidence, but on what we choose, deliberately and consciously, to conclude from that evidence. To our minds, this fork in our mental road is very much the point. It is, in fact, inescapable. James Stephen noted that “in nearly all the important transactions in life, indeed in all transactions whatever which have relation to the future, we have to take a leap in the dark, . . .to act upon very imperfect evidence. . . . I believe it to be the same with religious belief. . . . If we decide to leave the [questions] unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril.”(page 17)
In this world, one is always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial. We are acted upon, in other words, by appeals to our personal values, our yearnings, our fears, our appetites, and our egos. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is, in the final analysis, an action that is positively laden with moral significance. (Ibid)
Or, as Alma puts it:
I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction. (Alma 29:4)
This year, I have decided that instead of focusing on those things that I cannot do and cannot choose, I will focus on those things that I can choose, and be on the alert for those places where I surrender my power over my choices and my life.