The Limits of Choices We Make

What to choose?

What do you choose? An illusion fostered by education and current culture is that you determine your life outcome by your goals and choices. Set your goals and make your choices. Your choices are where the “rubber hits the road” and presumably determine your success. But, all you really “control” are your choices, and not outcomes. Because your choices may or may not lead to what you think. If you believe your choices lead to success and/or happiness, you may have a rude awakening. In fact, as you gain experience and knowledge, what you think of as success and/or happiness may change.

Let’s start with what you didn’t choose
You don’t choose your birth, race, gender, stature, eye color, nose, hair distribution, or poor health if you have some hereditary condition. You don’t choose your body or even the brain given to you by inheritance, and by derivation, your temperament, proclivities, or aptitudes. We each are like a individualized breed of dog, and we know dogs differ.
You don’t choose where you were born, the setting, rural or urban, California or Vermont. You don’t choose the local culture. You don’t choose if you have a Walmart or Nordstrom’s. No, all that comes with the package of being born.
You don’t choose your childhood apartment or house, your childhood religion or its absence, or whether your parents or neighbors are dull or interesting, or whether you have a large extended family or a nuclear family or even a single parent.
When you are an infant, toddler, and young school age child, you pretty much get the treatment you get from your parents, care or indifference, nourishment or not, tv or outdoor play, warm clothes or t-shirts, a peaceful household or one filled with tension, and so on. You might influence the environment, but you only can respond to what is presented. You don’t choose it.

Choice increases
The kindergarten and grade school you attend are a matter of your school district or parent’s purse, and you have only a little to say about that until “late grade school”, the 5th or 6th grade.
Middle school and high school allow more choice, but the teachers, their availability, their interest in you, the peers, the physical plant, the curriculum: All these are given, they are there. You don’t choose them. They came with the package. And then teachers and peers have their preoccupations, moods, and issues, and you don’t choose them either.
As a rule, your scope for choice becomes larger as you enter young adulthood. As a rule, in adolescence, at least you can argue what you want to wear, what school you want to attend, what food you will or will not eat. You are able to seek out friends and mentors outside your immediate school or neighborhood. You can ride your bike and, later, even drive a car.

Maybe that’s why parents often get frazzled over what is called “adolescent rebelliousness” which happens with 1/3 of kids, and maybe these are the kids who didn’t feel that they exercise much choice in their lives at all.
In adulthood, the scope for choice expands dramatically. Choice in young adulthood has enormous gravity for life. College, apprenticeship, quality of guidance, setting, and young adult culture opens or restricts pathways in later life. Once you have set off on a path, the degrees of freedom for later choices and the availability of choices are certainly affected.
As in your middle school and high school experiences, the teachers, peers, opportunities, and school and community cultures are not in your control –although, of course, your can choose your friends and mentors and associate with one group rather than another, but the environment is given, and what presents may not have been expected or anticipated. You can, of course, do your homework to have a better idea, at least in a general way, about the college culture and local environment, but no matter how well you research, you would meet people, challenges, and situations not found in any guide book.

After College
What about job or occupation? It is like finding out about college all over again. The market for jobs and occupations depends upon the economy. Economy is local, and it may be hot or not where you live. You may need to move to find work. Who you know is as important as what you know. You can research a company culture, but on the job, you will still find surprises. In any job, you have a finite ability to choose your peers or boss, and even work requirements and pay are not in your exclusive control.
In young adulthood and adulthood, the friends you make depend upon the people you meet. The spouse to whom you are wed depends upon encounter. You can only choose what presents to you. This includes jobs, things, investments, housing, friends, and adventures. These are bounded by location, local culture, and resources. With these restrictions, you can choose.

The Importance of Local Culture
Local culture is a big deal. For example, the values in LA “glamor” culture are entirely different from NYC “finance/money” culture. Knowing the local culture is important. Being “out of synch” with the local culture has personal, social, and monetary consequences. You may find yourself an “outsider” without connection. Being an outsider is tough unless you can find other similar outsiders. We are a social species, and we depend upon others for just about everything.

You only control your choices, sort of
Do you determine your choices? Choices are based upon your temperament, desires, wants, attitudes, values, beliefs, experience, observation, and mentoring. In early childhood, the attitudes, values, and behavior of parents inspire children’s activities and play. Children’s choices follow from identification with their parents, but identification depends upon the parental availability. If parents are hostile or emotionally or physically unavailable, children may detach from parents and find other models or solutions for self-coherence and purpose. They may substitute narcissistic fantasy, or rely upon the ubiquitous presence of screens, or video games, or corporate sponsored imagery.
In later life, including adulthood, the capacity to learn from mentors is conditioned by these early relationships. If the “parent” is a screen, then screens may serve as later models for behavior and purpose. In contrast, a healthy early relation with loving parents smooths the way to gainful relationships with later mentors. Otherwise, the path that is carved through choice may have to be learned the hard way –and the hard way can be very hard.

Are your choices grounded?
The determinants of choice may not be in conscious purview. Illusion, delusion, and fantasy may override reality. Poor early attachment may make persons oblivious to commitment and fidelity and unable to learn or abide by advice from more experienced persons.
In families stressed by work and money, media abounds with stories and images of power and success. Advertisements promote easy solutions. High schools and colleges promote knowledge and skill-training as be-all and end-all of security. The child and adolescent are not prepared for these fractious voices. The unexamined claims of multiple stakeholders eventuate in a glossary of fragmented wants. The self becomes divided and strives for contradictory purposes. “Having it all” is a common variant. Having luxury vacations, rare adventures, outstanding achievements, fame, good looks, wealth, multiple lovers, a committed spouse, well-adjusted children, freedom from illness, and “forever 21” entail practical difficulties and contradictions. Choice in one area contradicts other choices.
Self-sabotage and self-destruction are similarly ubiquitous –where a facet of the self is aligned against the self often with punitive intent. “You have been bad or have failed, therefore you must suffer for your evil or ineptitude.” You may be the last to know what you do to yourself. You may never suspect your hidden motivation.
The Buddha asserted that ignorance determines choice. We willingly do not do harm to self or others by malicious intent. The Buddha was right if we were entirely rational beings. But lugubriously, we are not. We do not know ourselves, and we do not want to know.

We do not determine the conditions of our heredity, birth, early life experience and education, peer group, and local culture. We do not determine the emotional or physical availability or maturity of our parents. We don’t determine our family membership. We often first experience choices in middle and high school for attire, activities, and personal friendships. But choices are heavily influenced, if not determined, by sources outside the self, such as peer groups and social media. The trajectory in college and adulthood is much the same. Plausible choice is further restricted by local culture whether regional, urban or rural. Occupation, employment, and peers further constrain choice. What we believe is our personal choice may be fraught with illusion. Choice is only a step in the encounter with reality. Personal goals and choice do not necessarily align with an outcome, whether “objective”, such as a job with Goggle, or “subjective”, such as “happiness”. Whatever the choice, much remains unknown and undetermined, “to be discovered”. Choice and self are intimately related, but the self is often elusive, hidden, and unknown.

This is part one of a two part series.