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Choice – Level I: Seeing Through Obstacles to Living by Choice

Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

“What is freedom? Freedom is the right to choose, the right to create for yourself
the alternatives of choice. Without the possibility of choice and the exercise of choice a man is not a man but a member, an instrument, a thing.”

—Archibald MacLeish

“Freedom to do what one likes is really bondage, while being
free to do what one must, what is right, is real freedom.”

—Nisargadatta Maharaj

That which effectively abandons choice simultaneously abandons soul. Prime evidence: discussions of finances, economics and money that harshly limit options and force only one possibility. These seemingly rational, grounded and reasonable discussions usually are not about being realistic or accepting of present conditions.

Rather they are about one party or ego ramroding one and only one way of handing a given set of circumstances or life conditions down the throat of a second party or another ego. This singular action, replicated unendingly, progressively deadens the primal vitality of choice and drills people into resignation, helplessness and giving up.

This dead-end street of choicelessness is essentially about the ego’s fear of scarcity and lack of omnipotence being thrown or projected into a depressing, choice-less future, or the ego’s greed-driven desires covering up these same fears. When we give away choice we equally give away our ability to be awake, present, grow and learn. Do you really want to be hornswaggled, flummoxed and bamboozled? While we’re busy denying, avoiding, conforming, rebelling and all the other ways to not choose, life just passes us by. The price is astronomical by anyone’s reckoning. The soulless is choice-less, counterfeit and phony. Only operating out of choice preserves what is soulful, real, lovely and fulfilling. The heart of a life is where we place our attention by choice.

Across the entire sweep of the human creature’s presence on this beautiful planet Earth encompassing at least one to two million years in modern form, who among us truly lives by choice? If the figure reached a full two percent, then that would be high. What is miraculous is that the figure is no lower! There are untold ways to sidestep, co-opt and derail operating out of choice, all involving the misuse of our minds. Now I know neither you nor I would ever do any of these!? Well, to be honest, we do. Here are a few: to deny, avoid and go unconscious, abandon, give up, and dismiss, tune out, daydream and dissociate, defend, rationalize and project, defeat, sell out and cop out, not to mention reject, resist, blame, punish, revenge and act out destructively. Anything that we do based on past memories, images, habit and conditioning that is a re-action without any possibility of a fresh, new response is without choice. A warm-up-seeing all as it is!

Doing the least, easiest, laziest and quickest nixes choice

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those
who in times of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality.”
—John F. Kennedy (attributed by him to Dante Alighieri),
also attributed to Winston Churchill

[Dante Alighieri placed those who “non furon ribelli né fur fedeli”- “were neither for nor against God”-in a special region near the mouth of Hell; the lowest part of Hell, a lake of ice, was for traitors.]

In all likelihood the most widespread way for most people to give up choice is simply to do the least, easiest, laziest and quickest thing in any situation to “just handle it.” and “make it go away.” Ordering fast food, taking whatever is offered, impulse buying and doing nothing are classic examples. The motives usually run deeper than just an easy and fast fix. The perceived costs to stand up for freedom of choice may look foreboding, risky and difficult to seriously contemplate undertaking. Better to stay pat.

The neo-Freudian author Erich Fromm richly described an analysis of the character structure of modern man, and specifically there being a totalitarian flight from freedom. His 1941 book Escape From Freedom was prophetic since communist Eastern European societies following the end of World War II did just what Fromm had described. The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Adolph Hitler would be one possible illustration of naively placing trust in someone utterly untrustworthy, while simultaneously escaping the freedom to set necessary limits with a totalitarian, aggressive dictator. By not assertively taking a strong stand for the right to freely determine their form of government, such as a democracy, people give up choice.

Democracies are notoriously difficult to establish, demand an informed electorate, require great participation by the citizenry and take constant vigilance to maintain. If the people had not developed to the level to hold establishing and maintaining a democracy that preserved individual freedoms, then those people simply would take the easy way out through an “escape from freedom.” For Fromm this escape could take the forms of authoritarianism, destructiveness or automaton conformity.

Fromm saw that freedom had brought both independence and isolation. Given how the isolation is essentially unbearable, he saw the key choice being between the alternatives of escaping freedom to take on new submission and dependencies, or to advance into a complete realization of an affirmative freedom premised upon the individuality and uniqueness of humans.1 In fact, Eastern European countries did became satellite communist countries of the U.S.S.R. following the end of the Second World War given the militarization of those countries by the Russians. Countries that did nothing to help those people in making their own choice for government are complicit in what occurred. If you don’t fight for freedom, you abdicate freedom. If you don’t take and honor choice, then you don’t get a choice. Choice is hard to get, and harder to keep.

Allowing another to generate the two or more options sacrifices choice

One of the classic ways choice is misplaced is when you hand the generating of options to someone else, and only after this consider consequences, trade-offs and picking. This form of misplaced choice happens all the time in business and personal life. This logical fallacy goes by the name of “false dilemma” or “either/or fallacy” since this fallacy only accepts two options among many possibilities. This fallacy would equally apply to any number of options, so long as someone other than you created them.

Here are three illustrations. Giving the creating of alternatives to someone else might take the form of responding to an advertisement for a loan that promises that you now have a choice between two different types of loans with their company. This might take the form of going to a market who advertised coupons saying you now had a choice for getting discounts on merchandise in various departments of their store. This might take the form of deciding between two restaurants to go eat at which were picked by your family members or friends. Given that in each case some other party generated the options, there can be no choice present. Of course there is nothing wrong with having others offer their ideas, so long as you personally generate or select the options you will decide among.

Conformity and strict obedience as the leading way to give up choice

“You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.”
—Dorothy Parker

One major way to accomplish this crime of illusory choice is to be obedient, do your duty, and simply conform to what others want from you across your behavior, attitude, thoughts, feelings and beliefs. The very socialization process that we are subjected to in our families, media, schools, communities and workplaces is usually more than enough to “successfully” complete the process to obey. The most common form of conformity is to become attached to a mental formation or belief. Taking any mental position blocks the possibility of recognizing any other. If an incredibly high percentage of the time you do what is wanted and expected from you and don’t do anything else, then gotcha. In these circumstances we all know who runs your life-not you!

Cow-towing in blind obedience to any orthodoxy, dogma, belief system, rules or regulations and “ism,” such as socialism, communism, consumerism, or fundamentalism, are all variations on the theme of conformity. With only one option available, and no other viable option consciously considered, how could there be any choice? Being driven or forced to comply isn’t a choice of being free. It surely isn’t being unforced to negotiate either. Dorothy Parker was correct that those that bow to any dogma don’t learn new tricks, or much of anything else. They’re unavailable to listen, learn, adapt and choose.

Domination by feelings, thoughts, actions or problems gives away choice

Another subterfuge of choice is to be driven and dominated by your feelings, thoughts, behavioral habits and problems. In this form of mistaken choice, whatever your mind urges you to do or not do, is exactly what occurs. The same equally applies to what another tells you to do or not do. With no other viable options generated or seriously evaluated, blindly following non-critical thinking is only another disguised wolf of mistaken choice pretending to be the sheep of choice.

At the risk of sounding sexist or biased against the tenderhearted, it would seem that females and deep feeling individuals of either gender, who often appreciate, value and invest in the emotional realm of living, are at more risk of falling prey to being dominated by feelings. For instance, you feel awkward and alone, so you are compelled to hide away and isolate. Or you feel sad and depressed, so you think you must go shopping and buy yourself something to cheer yourself up.

Being driven by thoughts is probably the major false choice trap for the unwary. Letting any thought solely propel your life to the exclusion of different or contradictory thoughts is to be blinded to other alternatives and, thereby, choice. Again, it wouldn’t matter whether the thought was generated by yourself or another, if this thought precludes an open-mindedness and alternative possibilities, thus letting thoughts become your master. For example, you think you must always be logical and reasonable, so you stubbornly refuse to participate in any intuitively drawing spontaneous activity for fun.

It appears that males and tough-minded, bottom-line driven, dollars-and-cents, concrete thinkers are more vulnerable to being dominated by ideas. Political, academic or business ideas held to be “the only way” are clear illustrations. Any idea or thought worth its salt can stand up to the scrutiny of alternative viewpoints and the evidence supporting each. Of such is the grist and gristle of responsible governments and the forward progress of civilizations and cultures.

Choice is also unavailable when you allow or permit yourself to be dominated by any given behavior or habit. If no other alternative action and the resulting consequences are seriously looked at, then choice disappears. All forms of addictive behavior, such as being an alcoholic, workaholic or shopaholic, are illustrations of being driven by habits since they all sacrifice your direct control over to an action pattern that takes control of you. All impulsivity and acting out behavior in which an urge, impulse or idea is immediately acted upon without first thinking of the consequences also qualify.

Rebellious, defiant & oppositional-Another contender in giving up choice

Another dominant way to abandon choice, somewhat less exercised on the whole, is to act rebellious, defiant and oppositional. The majority of the time you do something different or the opposite of what anyone says, expects or wants you to do. This ends up being the flip side of conformity. This is the attitude of a separate self or ego. This pattern often can be evident across generations, one being conforming, conservative, or strict, and the next being oppositional, liberal, or permissive. No choice either way. Each age’s “younger generation” can be predicted to oppose the status quo of its day, although there is something equally predictable about the majority of that generation conforming within their non-conformity! Once again, there is no choice in this pattern. Since rebellion and oppositionality have been such a major theme song throughout our human saga on this planet, a wonderful Zen story highlights the sacrifice of our personal power of choice that invariably results:

YOU CANNOT MAKE ME DO WHAT YOU SAY!

A priest from a rival Buddhist sect attended one of Master Bankei’s (1622-1693) lectures. When the large audience welcomed Bankei with enthusiastic applause, the priest could not contain his jealousy: “You are a fraud,” he cried out. “You may be able to fool these peasants and make them do whatever you say, but I have no respect for you. Can you make me do what you say?”

“Come here and I will show you,” Bankei replied. As the priest approached the lectern Bankei said, “Come over to the left.” The priest went to the left. “On second thought, come to the right.” The priest went to the right. “Good,” said Bankei, “you have obeyed me well. Now sit down and shut up.”

The pattern equally applies to what anyone tells, expects or desires you to NOT do, you do that very thing anyway. That will show them! Mark Twain once told an amusing story all about being oppositional:

“Adam was but human-this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake; he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent-then he would have eaten the serpent.”

Precisely what is shown by rebellion? Being a habitual contrarian only ends up running your life. You may passionately protest, “No! I’m being my own person. No one can tell me what to do, so there!” In point of fact, if you do the opposite or the different just to oppose anyone “running” your life, then good-bye choice. Gotcha, anyway! Only one option again, and that’s no choice at all. Several variations on these two patterns can be thought of as hybrids. Some people switch-hit by acting as conformists at work and rebels at home. Others do it in the reverse: they play the role of contrarians at work and dutifully obey at home. Notice that there is only one option in each setting. No choice.

Hybrids-Closet conformity, closet rebelliousness and switch-hitting

Closet conformity and closet rebelliousness are passive-aggressive forms of mistaken choice. The closet conformist puts on the front, mask, act or persona of being their own man or woman by being rebellious, yet simultaneously their actions conform to what the person is told to do or not do. The interesting part is that this dance is accomplished on the sly and behind the back, usually when push comes to shove and a decision needs to be made. Thus, closet conformity offers the appearance of rebelliousness and independent choice, yet the reality is repeated conformity to what is asked on a private, hidden basis.

Closet rebelliousness, a mirror image of closet conformity, takes the form of someone putting on the front, mask, image or persona of being the company or team or group person in conforming to what is being asked, yet in a hidden, private manner consistently rebels and opposes when a decision is immanent. In other words, the closet rebel gives the appearance of conformity, while the reality is one of repeatedly rebelling and opposing. Once again, since only one alternative is seriously being examined, closet rebelliousness and oppositionality do not qualify as choice either.

A variations on the theme of conformity and rebellion is “switch-hitting,” that is the person who consistently and repeatedly conforms to what is asked in one type of setting and rebels in another type of setting. For illustration, consider someone who behaves as a conformist on the job, and is actively rebellious when at home. Similarly, one spouse may be very conforming when out in public or at friend’s homes with their mate, yet is an oppositional tyrant at home with their mate. This switch-hitting between conformity and rebellion does not have at least two viable alternatives being seriously weighed. So once again the masquerade of choice is exposed for the illusion it is.

Wired by image management gives away choice

Taking continual polls or votes about your constituents’ opinions and then acting in accord with the results is another variation of mistaken choice. Certainly this pattern of behavior counts as manipulative. I call it being wired by image management since the person is absorbed by what image needs to be constructed and presented to gain specific benefits. The interesting spin here is that the alternative picked was always known to be the one that would be chosen anyway, no matter what other options are generated or how the consequences of each are weighed.

Take the experience of implementing affirmative action regulations and procedures in the hiring of candidates for a job position. Walking through all the steps to accomplish this, while picking the person you had wanted from the start, scuttles choice. Having any decision “wired” so that only one option can be picked is a subterfuge of choice and deceiving yourself.

Too few and too many options subverts choice

Another subversion of choice is having a highly limited number of options and thinking you are honestly choosing. When the alternatives are generated or predetermined by someone else, and further are constrained by their motive or agenda, then you have an illusion of freedom but no choice. This often applies to group and individual interactions that frame the options, while you are excluded from active participation in the process.

The classic example is a seller pitching a select number of products or services to a potential buyer, asking which ones are most appealing, and then inquiring what number are desired while writing up a bill of sale. What happened to your choice? It’s been usurped and you were a willing co-conspirator! Further illustrations include union votes on measures previously decided upon in private meetings, bosses framing work options without worker input, and anyone functioning inside a bureaucratic organization that denies you genuine opportunities for having a meaningful voice in challenging and changing the existing rules and structure of operation.

Remarkably, having too many options typically can overwhelm most of us and we again can easily abandon the entire enterprise. Being overwhelmed, giving up in utter passivity, and non-participation also gives up choice. With only one end in mind and using any and all means to realize it, where is the choice? One option, as we’ve seen, amounts to no choice.

Passivity and not caring gives up choice

Another form of mistaken choice is simply not caring enough to have any opinion at all. Apathy, indifference, passivity and “whatever” simply hands the choice-making to circumstances, other people or the whims of the moment. This may appear to be laziness and becoming a tub of goo. While there appear to be options, they are all equally acceptable and equally unacceptable, thus of no consequence.

With so little of the person invested in a decision, there’s little drive to create possibilities, weigh them or choose one. It can take the form of being in the role of “victim” in others having done something to you, coming at you and so on. This is not having been “victimized” and recovering to being a wiser survivor, it’s purely being in this learned role of victim. This is akin to being a billiard ball and being knocked around the billiard table of life by other people, circumstances, emotions, thoughts, behaviors and oneself. The viewpoint is expressed in what I call the dreaded “to me’s, on me’s, at me’s, upon me’s and made me’s!” Other than acts of victimization, this is pure nonsense.

This giving up of caring is akin to a child taking their marbles and going Home-they’re all done. Both resignation in passivity and reactivity in playing the victim signal deeper traumatic hurt. This can lead to unending drama and disgruntled indignation. Alternatively, this can lead to making the decision that nothing will make any difference, also known as ‘learned helplessness’ since you think you are helpless given your belief that you have no control over the contingencies or outcomes. If you invest little, you protect yourself from further injuries. However, this strategy prevents any possibility of success either. With only the one option of being passive, apathetic and indifferent or reactive, indignant and wronged, there is again no choice to be had.

Still there are ways upon ways to out-clever yourself in giving up choice

Other ways to abdicate choice are to people-please as well as manipulate yourself and others with an attachment to achieving your agenda and goals. Automatically going along for the sake of people pleasing or looking to impress others, whether it is your family, parents, children, boss, co-workers, and neighbors or to be “cool” or “hot” gives up choice. To simply “go along” with advertisers, influenced peddlers, gatekeepers, naysayers, bean counters, power brokers and log rollers also abdicates choice.

A salesman’s trick is to provide an illusion of choice options by artificially offering you two or more alternatives to supposedly pick from. For example, a salesman says, “These gopher traps by Gopher-Traps-For-All come in double steel-reinforced, single steel-reinforced and standard steel models. So which one would you like to purchase? And how many will that be?” Since the salesman on behalf of a company providing a product or service is generating all the options, this disqualifies it for being any choice at all. Choice not only requires the structure of having two or more options; it’s essential for choice that these alternatives be picked by you and nobody else.

Not to be outdone, there is always putting pressure or stress on yourself or allowing others to do the same. In this instance you may hear a bushel load of should’s, gotta’s, must’s, ought’s, need to’s, have to’s (and their opposites). There is also second-guessing life and reality. Here is all the could’s, would’s, should’s, if only’s and if then’s. All of these thought formulations are fairy tales in non-reality that are used to punish yourself and others. Both sets of thoughts and beliefs, verbalized or not, are illusions and thus not real by definition. Given there is only one right, proper way to do (or not do) something in this language, good-bye choice. In fact, all of these cognitive constructions can be seen as negative judgments that effectively kill off any possibility of choice.

Take “should” and “shouldn’t” for instance. Go ahead and think of all the things you “should” on yourself over and observe whether any of them actually happened. Notice if it is any different with “shoulding” on others. Typically, and almost without exception, none of these “should’s” happened. Should didn’t happen! For example, I should have already washed the dishes, which have yet to be washed in fact, is a complete disconnect from reality. Now go ahead and think of all the things you “shouldn’t” do and again observe whether they actually happened. Again, see if it is any different when you “shouldn’t” on others. Commonly and predictably, all the things that “shouldn’t” have happened actually happened. Shouldn’t actually already happened! For example, you shouldn’t have told a private matter to our friend, that has already been told to our friend in point of fact, is equally not playing with a full deck in reality.

In other words, should didn’t happen and shouldn’t already happened! One is a denial of what didn’t happen, while the other is a denial of what did happen. Both “should” and “shouldn’t” are unrealistic concepts in not being grounded in the relative world, tend to be experienced as putting pressure on someone and usually set up resistance (and sometimes conformity), and are equally irrational and unworkable.

Interestingly, choice is as contaminated by selfless co-dependence as it is by selfish egotism. Any demand or manipulation that would push, force, cajole or unduly influence you to act in a fashion that is NOT how you naturally and normally live, compromises choice. All “ism’s” act like arteriosclerosis or the clogging of the arteries in gumming up and blocking choice. Each “ism,” beginning with egocentricism and egotism, whether it be conservatism or liberalism, fascism or capitalism, monotheism or polytheism, hedonism or asceticism, Freudianism or Jungianism or any other, demands allegiance to purely one set of beliefs, dogmas, rules, and behaviors. What is necessary or required equals no choice. To tap into and be animated by the ego or imaginary false self is to abdicate choice. Any one option is no choice on the level of ego, while flowing with clear-eyed alternatives you pick, carefully weighing each with consequences and trade-offs, and picking something, is living choice.

The ultimate way to abandon choice, and what now?

Lastly, finally and ultimately, to the degree that we take on any belief, role, story, and identification with the ego-mind is the same degree to which we give up choice. Thus, there is no choice when we indulge in going along with the ego’s claim of authority in enacting unworkable behavior patterns, false identities, beliefs, roles, and stories, no matter what they are.

What now? The opportunity is to clear all the junk out of your ego-mind garage, thereby opening up a tremendous spaciousness that was always there. As you permit yourself to first see through all these illusions, and then let go, release and surrender all these obstacles to operating out of choice, all these blockages to living out of choice naturally fade, dissolve and disappear. It is most curious and intriguing to begin to notice precisely what remains. Now, that is worth staying present and seeing what you see. The possibility for learning an effective structure for living out of choice and even transcending choice into a timeless “apparent choice” beckon. Is there a willing interest?

References

1. Erick Fromm, Escape From Freedom. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1941.

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