Friday, 20 September 2013

We have no choice but to make choices

Hello dear reader, if you're still actually reading. I know it's been a long time between rants. Turns out I've been too content lately to rant about things. Or I haven't. I haven't decided yet what excuse to provide to you. Or if I even need to give you one.

As you may have guessed, this one's about choice. It's a major influence in human existence. Decision making is how we all managed to get here, one way or another. It is something we will do from the day we're born to the day we die, voluntarily or not.

Evolution, and our daily experiences have wired our brains to make certain instinctual decisions. Some of us are able to look at them differently. Have a listen to this little gem of a podcast when you find the time (about an hour) or if you have lots of time read the book it relates to "Why People Believe Weird Things" by Michael Shermer (who has introduced me to my new favourite colloquialism for brains: electric meat). To sum up, over time some of our individual and collective electric meat have managed to find patterns and correlations where none exist, but seem to be a throw back to a time when we really need to know if that rustling in the grass was just the wind or something that could kill us. This is just one kind of involuntary choice that we make.

In this post I want to talk about the choices we voluntarily make, both consciously and subconsciously. Wait, how can a subconscious choice be voluntary? I have a point here, I promise. I'm not just referring to choosing not to breathe or make your heart beat, though you can choose to hold your breath or make your heart beat faster though exercise, but that's beside the point. Or rather it is the point. By holding your breath you choose to acknowledge the process you become aware of it and suddenly your power over it. You do have power over it, albeit only for a short period of time. If you hold it until you pass out, your subconscious will take the reins back.

I think we can do this same trick with subconscious decisions we make as a result of conditioning. So many people make choices based on what they know, what they've done, tasted, heard or were taught. Experiences easily become ingrained in our soft impressionable electric meat. Studies have shown that people have a very hard time changing their mind about a thing even after trying it a second time. I won't get into the biochemical reasons about why we cannot or have a very hard time changing our minds, I lack those credentials.

I firmly believe that we can make our unconscious decisions conscious, voluntary ones. It takes work and it takes awareness. Sometimes it takes external assistance, at the start.

To make a choice we need to be presented with options. Sometimes there's only two choices, sometimes there are too many and we become overwhelmed, I know I've been "crippled by choice" because there were too many appealing options when faced with only being able to choose just one. This type of situation often leads people to regret their choice, because of all the other options they wish they'd explored. Everyone has their own filters for making choices depending on the situation. Some of those filters can be difficult to apply to a simplified choice. Friend or Foe? Yes or No? One or Zero?

We weigh the options and if there's enough time we work out the best out come for the moment and hopefully for later on. Some of us are really good at this, some of us are very bad at it.  And by that I don't mean that people are incapable of making choices, they're wired to. Some people just can't see the third, fourth or fifth (etc) options that exist.

Addicts and professional victims are prime examples.

Addicts continue to get their fix (regardless of what it is) for reasons they justified to themselves long ago and see no need to change. It could be habitual it could be a coping mechanism, it could be both. The most common story is that they drink and/or do drugs to help forget about some horrible thing that happened to them in their life either a long time ago or something on going. Over time, they chose to give up choice. Yes that makes sense, they chose to give it up by choosing not to be sober.

The lucky ones are those who managed to gain awareness, one way or another, and suddenly choice is restored, when it never really left them in the first place. They always had the choice, they just couldn't see it in front of them. They get clean they cut back and/or stop what they're doing. They choose to stop, they choose to seek help, they choose to remain sober. Every day it's a choice. The burden of choice.

The ultimate power of choice. For those who feel completely powerless in many or all aspects of their lives it may be easy to believe that they never had choices. That it's up to a god or an authority figure or the universe or higher power. There's that word again, power. Making choices makes us feel powerful. We regain some modicum of control over our lives, even if it's something as simple as what to wear. The bigger the decision the more power you typically have over your own life or everyone else's if you're in politics.

The bigger and more elaborate decisions you make the more in control you'll feel. I can only speak from personal experience here, but I've made some decisions in my life that were neither A nor B but G or N or Z. Even if those other letters were very unpopular and no one else in their right mind would choose. I've made choices that go against my instinct, that go against my experience, choices that poke sticks at old wounds, choices that some people don't understand. And the more often I do this, the more I feel like I'm in control of my own life. Because ultimately, unless someone incapacitates me I am the only one in control of my own life because I'm the only one responsible for it.

A professional victim may see the events of their life as beyond their control, as a result of outside influences only and require blame to rest solely on the shoulders of others. Sure, sometimes it is. Instinctively, no person consciously choses to be sexually, physically or psychologically assaulted. Not the first time. Sadly some folks get conditioned by repeat offences and start to choose the bad over the good either because it's all they've ever known, that they have no choice, and this infiltrates every non-choice they make from that point onward. Or they don't believe or know they can do any better. The reasons for believing they have no choices is as wide and varied as the choices they don't realise they have. It's an option they've never considered. It's not just choosing some other letter of the alphabet besides A or B. It's recognizing that there's a choice at all.

Not everyone gets to this point. Either to that point at which they cannot not see their choices or they don't reach that point at which they become aware that there are other options. Sometimes awareness does cut the proverbial mustard.

Many nights I chose not to write. I chose not to think. I chose to watch something or play solitaire or read comics. I chose the path of least resistance. It wasn't until recently that I was made aware of my choice to let my brain sit in idle for a long period of time. Tonight I chose to eat left over steamed broccoli and potato chips for dinner and I chose to write instead of do nothing or get some much needed sleep.

Which just proves that we can't always make the right choice or the best choice, but it's still a choice. Never do anything you aren't prepared to regret, something you cannot do without making a choice.

More on this to come I hope, when I next choose to shift my brain from idle into a useful gear.

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