The most difficult decisions I’ve made in my life revolve around choosing to exert or surrender control over my emotional relationships with people and substances. I am guided in many ways by that simple wisdom found in the Serenity Prayer, but even there, there are difficult decisions to be made. Is my relationship with a particular thing something I can control, or something I must simply accept? It’s difficult to decide which perspective to take sometimes. And whichever I choose, I often find that I was wrong, and it belongs in the other category.
I’ve had conversations recently about things like fitness, chronic disease, and loneliness in graduate school. I’ve taken unpopular positions that all of these things are largely susceptible to our choices about them. And obviously, there are many different factors that influence how each of these impact our lives: genetics, privilege, location, environment. But I maintain that the dominating factor in all of these, and in most of the aspects of our lives, remains the choices we make about them.
The reason I believe this is the profound evidence I have from my own life, and that of the many thousands of lives I’ve seen affected, by making and adhering to difficult choices about behavior. Lives lived in all circumstances of genetics and privilege and location and environment. What we choose to invest our efforts in will result in the outcomes we achieve, the great majority of the time. Difficult choices have profound impacts and we can achieve incredible things when we choose a path and then stay steadfast to it.
I am an alcoholic. I cannot control the way my body and my brain respond to alcohol. It is diseased. Alcohol produces effects in me that are different from most people, and inimical to my ability to function in society. As much as I like to tell myself sometimes that I could learn to be a normal drinker, I cannot. And so I have had to make choices. Every day I choose that today I will not drink. Every day I choose to maintain what we members of Alcoholics Anonymous call our “spiritual condition” so that the choice not to drink does not become challenging for me.
My family is beset by diabetes and obesity. I cannot change my genetics, or my past. And so I run. Because of the choices I made as a young man, I will never have the body I want. I have to accept that part. But despite my two-sided familial predisposition to morbid obesity, I am not obese anymore. I might be diabetic. I teetered at the edge of it. But the diet and exercise program I’m following has my metabolism behaving normally. I am a bit overweight. But I am fit, and normative in my physical aspect. Because I choose to invest large amounts of time and effort into it. More that people without my genetics and history would have to do.
Some aspects of my life I continue to make bad choices: I eat too much junk. I don’t save nearly as much money as I should. I don’t work as hard at work as I should. These are choices I am making, and they have real consequences. Some of those consequences will be long-term. Because I’ve bought lunch everyday for the past 5 years, there are several thousands of dollars of savings I don’t have now. That’s a choice I’ve made.
But when I talk about these things on twitter, I’m often told that this belief in the power of choices is offensive. Not everyone can make the same choices. Not everyone has the time or options. That much is certainly true. We each have a different set of paths available to us. But each day we make choices about which path we take today. Every morning I have the opportunity to pack a lunch. I’ve taken that opportunity about 9 times in the past five years.
I think the real problem is not the idea that we have and make choices that have profound influence on our lives. I think that it has become unfashionable to believe that we have the power to change our circumstances. No one wants to be at fault for negative outcomes. So it is easier to believe that we don’t have the ability to influence our condition. That we are victims of systems that control us. I don’t believe that that’s true. Yes, systems influence us. But they are not our sole driving force.
It is easy to become invested in the idea that the things we don’t like about ourselves are immutable and imposed. It relieves us of a great deal of responsibility. And in many cases, like my own with alcohol or obesity, some aspects are beyond our control. I cannot change my alcoholism. I cannot change my genetic predisposition toward obesity. They make things harder for me. But they don’t control me. I don’t have to drink. I don’t have to be obese.
What is offensive is when someone assumes that because a person has made different choices than themselves, it makes them a bad person. One reason I have enough time to run and stay fit is that I’ve chosen not to have children (though, of course, you’ll find many, many parents who run). Choices have long-term consequences that become fixtures of our lives. And making choices that have different outcomes that the ones I’ve made is no reflection on a person’s morality.
But I feel sad when I see people invested in helplessness. When people are unhappy, yet assert that their unhappiness is impossible for them to change. I don’t believe that. I’ve watched too many people, in every walk of life – from prison and infirmity to wealth on Wall Street – make choices that result in their own increasing happiness to believe that it is impossible for any of us. Sometimes the choice needs to be one of acceptance of a thing we can’t change. But more often, I think, it’s a choice of action.
Taking action to change our lives is hard. But the great majority of the time, taking action is the only thing that changes our lives. Choices have risk, and trade-offs, and uncertainty. But if we are miserable, choosing to remain entrenched and motionless has only the certainty of stagnancy. One of the greatest things I’ve learned in AA is, “Everything good in my life I have because I did something I didn’t want to do.”
I have a pretty good life today. I’m happy most of the time. And I know I still would be if I didn’t have this good job or a nice home or a wonderful relationship. That’s due to many, many things. But the biggest factor is that I’ve chosen to accept things I cannot change, and work to improve my life where I can. I’ve chosen to seek happiness in progress, rather than attainment. I’ve chosen to seek happiness in helping others, in building from where I am, wherever that is.
Shakespeare wrote that the fault is in our selves, not in our stars. Well, to hell with fault. I don’t care for blame. But the opportunity for joy and happiness and contentment and peace is in us. It is only in us. If you’re unhappy, make a change.