You Get to Choose
By Kitty J. Boitnott, Ph.D., NBCT, RScP
Certified Life Strategies & Stress Management Coach
Sometimes, I believe, some of us actually like to consider ourselves victims. After all, being a victim of circumstance allows us to blame others or outside situations for the more unpleasant conditions in our lives. “He gave me no choice,” we like to complain when telling our friends about dilemma we are facing, whether it be on the job or at home. “What choice did I have?” we sometimes whine plaintively when looking for validation, as we stay stuck in some situation that needs to be addressed.
The fact is, however, that we always have a choice. Admittedly, the trouble may be that sometimes we don’t understand or can’t see clearly what the various choices are, but we always have them, and even when we can’t change the outer circumstances of a situation, we always have a choice about how we behave in the face of it.
French philosopher and author, Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “We are our choices.” In modern psychology, I believe we are coming to believe this truth more and more. It is still difficult for some of us to grasp, however, especially when we feel that we are stuck on the horns of a dilemma and we can’t see our way out of a situation that has us feeling stuck.
I once participated in a weekend retreat where the participants did a lot of digging into their stories about what had brought them to the particular junctures in their lives. They went back and considered the childhood experiences that had impacted them, often without their being aware, and how they were acting out of the beliefs that they had developed at the tender ages of 2, 3 and 4…before their more rational and logical adult brains had kicked in and developed a more mature understanding of the whole situation. Some began to realize that decisions they had made about who they were in the world made absolutely no sense when considered in the context of those decisions having been made by a child who hadn’t yet developed the ability to discern what was in their best interest and what wasn’t.
I observed one woman totally transform over the course of 30 minutes as she came to realize that her entire life and her rigid approach to agreements with others and their “word” was the result of her father sexually assaulting her while her mother was in the hospital having her younger brother. Her father had pointed to the Bible and told her that she was to do what the Bible said…that the Bible was the word and the word was law. In this case, the “word” was “honor thy father.” You don’t have to stretch your imagination much to guess what sort of honor he was expecting her to extend to him. She had been scarred from that point on, but she had forgotten that specific incident until she was encouraged to consider what childhood experience she may have had that would cause her rigid attitude about what it meant to “honor one’s word.”
As she came to realize that her entire adult life had been driven by that experience with her father when she was so young and so vulnerable, she softened to the extent that her entire demeanor changed. It was as though she changed entirely right before our very eyes. It was nothing short of miraculous. As she realized that her father had done a horrible thing to her as a child but that now as an adult she could choose to see it for what it was…an event that had happened over 35 years ago that no longer needed to drive her current experience…she made a new choice. She chose to be the adult who had the choice to forgive her father—and have love and compassion for her own inner child who had been so violated by his awful act. She made a choice to move forward putting that dreadful incident behind her forever.
We all have horrible things that happen to us. We lose loved ones. We get sick and sometimes face prognoses that we would prefer not to have to consider. Accidents happen, sometimes with horrific consequences. People we love suffer. We lose our jobs. Sometimes we lose our homes. “Life is not a bed of roses,” as they say. And yet, what we always have is a choice in how we decide to face those realities of life. We have the ability to choose…always.
Viktor Frankl is a perfect example of what I am getting at with regard to our ability to choose, and in his case, he decided to choose love over hatred. Dr. Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who was captured and imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. He was imprisoned for three years, and he lost everyone in his family except his sister, who also survived a horrific experience in a concentration camp.
Upon his release from a series of concentration camps where he witnessed all manner of man’s ability to be inhumane to his fellow man, Frankl wrote a book, which is known today as Man’s Search for Meaning. Published in 1959, the book offers that even in the most awful, painful, and dehumanizing situations, life has meaning. Even in our suffering, we can find meaning. While the Nazis were all about dehumanizing the individuals in the concentration camps, Frankl himself refused to let them take control of his own experience. He refused to let them win by refusing to let them reduce him to their level. He wrote, “I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.” Even in the face of the worst conditions conceivable, Frankl recognized that the freedom that the Nazis could not take from him was the freedom to determine his own attitude and spiritual wellbeing. He alone had control over his inner life, his thoughts, and the workings of his soul. Even while suffering the most inconceivable injustice and while witnessing the most horrible cruelty imaginable, he still had a choice about how to interpret the events around him and how to act in the face of them.
Viktor Frankl exercised his power of choice. The woman who chose to reclaim her own life by forgiving her father made a choice. You and I have choices everyday about how we decide to live our lives. We don’t have to explain our choices to anyone. Choices don’t require rationalizations although all too often we feel compelled to explain ourselves. The only thing that matters is that you give up being a victim in your life once and for all. Choose. It will set you free.