Here’s To Living The Life We Mean To

The image above appeared in my Facebook feed repeatedly this week. During the same time frame, I was watching a movie called “The Way”:

I hope you caught the line, repeated throughout the movie, “You don’t choose a life, you live one.”

Two widely different views on choosing in life. The first addressing the daily choices we all make, the “micro” viewpoint; the second, the sweeping (or “macro”) view. Upon first exposure to each, I found nothing to disagree with or argue. Both statements have validity. It is often the case, however, that confronting the same idea multiple times leads to deeper consideration.

At face value, the first statement is specifically a short treatise on personal responsibility. I’m down with that – not blaming my life on others or on extenuating circumstances. I make my own choices, big and small, throughout each and every day. The more I read it, though, the more I find myself arguing with its scolding tone and oversimplified declaratives. Because the truth is, you can only make choices within the scope of what is available or possible for you – which differs among individuals/groups of individuals AND which is partially dependent upon what you believe is possible. What is possible for a child born and living in a refugee camp in the Sudan is, logically, not the same as what is possible for a child born in the midwestern United States. Even when those children are adults and, presumably the primary choice-makers in their own lives, the realities of geography, circumstance, finance make their possibilities and the choices available quite different. Layer over that the efficacy of belief and the filters through which we view the world, the realities of sexism and racism and classism…and it becomes somewhat harder to take this admonition at face value.

The second statement, “You don’t choose a life, you live one” also appealed to me at first. Jumping into your life, toes of both feet pointed to immerse you quickly and smoothly into the stream of experience, sounds about right. Don’t over think it, just do and feel it. What’s not to love about that idea? Just this: sometimes when we are all about living rather than choosing, we just keep moving from experience to experience without ever going/getting anywhere.

Just a few of the thoughts I’ve had while reflecting on these two quotes. I can always wax philosophical about such ideas. It is one of my defense mechanisms – you know, those things that conveniently keep us from thinking too honestly or feeling too deeply when something threatens to make us? Once I realize that my defenses are engaged, it’s usually a good idea to look more deeply, to figure out why.

“You and only you are responsible for every decision and choice you make.” This is the line that strikes me most deeply. It is true, if scary. However, my life isn’t constructed by my decisions only. Ask anyone in the midst of a protracted job search, and they’ll likely say what they hate the most is the lack of personal control over what happens. Your fate, your future, feels like it is in the hands of strangers. In the arena of personal relationships, as well, there are others involved in the way that relationship takes shape or doesn’t. Considering the proliferation of this post on the pages of my politically conservative friends, I find myself thinking the subtext is intended to point the finger at those lazy freeloaders deemed to be benefitting from the hard word and earnings of ‘honest” folks/taxpayers. I’m not whining or hiding from my fiscal responsibilities – but I am working full-time, on my feet for 8-hour shifts, no two-days-in-a-row off, no paid sick leave – and for the first time in my life receiving public assistance. Given all of this, its no wonder this post has me feeling a bit defensive.

“You don’t choose a life, you live one.” Well, this idea would seem to offer me relief from the “I make all my own choices” piece because it skips right over the whole question of responsibility. Live. Breathe. Experience. Om. Except this pesky voice in my head keeps suggesting that it isn’t the whole story. Am I living my life? You bet – to the best of my ability to see my choices on a daily basis. But there is also the need to feel like my life has a story, follows an arc of meaning. An over-focus on living each day as it comes can prevent one from investing energy in that long-term life plot. My defensiveness on this count is genuine. Each day seems to be so full of activities and choices and experiences, I fall into bed utterly exhausted each night. But in those brief moments before I lose consciousness to sleep I find myself asking, “What did I do today? Why didn’t I get more done? How can I do this differently?”

Twenty years ago, my colleagues at The University of Iowa and I created a substance abuse prevention campaign for the campus titled “Choices: You’ve Got ‘Em”. We then went on to share our take on how to make “good” choices in the context of substance use on a college campus. For me (and I suspect many others), this is the difficult sticking point:  not that we have choices, or that we’re responsible for our own; rather, how do we know we’re making good choices. The best choices. Choices that communicate our values, that support our best selves, and that help us to create that meaningful life story each of us hopes to author?

I would love to tie up these ruminations with some really good answers for discerning how to make choices in our lives. I’m fresh out of strong answers to life’s abiding questions today, however. Instead, I’d like to share a story from Gregg Levoy’s book, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life. In the excerpt, Levoy recounts asking a question of M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Travelled:

…asked how, in struggling with an important personal decision, I would know i was doing the right thing. Dr. Peck said the question is the single most common one he is asked and that “there is no such formula. The unconscious is always one step ahead of the conscious mind – the one that knows things – so it’s impossible to know for sure. But if you’re willing to sit with ambiguity, to accept uncertainties and contradictory meanings, then your unconscious will always be a step ahead of your conscious mind in the right directions. You’ll therefore do the right thing, although you won’t know it at the time.”

Uncertainty normally drives us daft, but although knowledge is power, not knowing also has its own power. There is the power in trusting ourselves, relying on our intuitions, being able to act even in the face of uncertainty, rather than drone on for sometimes years with yes-no-yes-no-yes-no-yes-no, the very onomatopoeia of indecision. It can be more heroic to be willing to act in the absence of certainty than to refuse to act without absolute certainty.

So, choices. We’ve got ’em. Here’s to accepting the challenge of making and taking responsibility for our daily choices. But more especially, here’s to living the life we mean to – anchored by choosing to act, rather than being paralyzed by indecision or limitations. It’s my life; it’s your life – choose it AND live it!