If you’re like me (a human with human friends), someone sometime has asked for your opinion on a life choice.* What should I eat, where should I live, which job should I take, who should I date, which one looks better on me? Make sure to use your listening skills for such scenarios, because sometimes people actually want your advice, but sometimes they just want you to affirm their decision. In either case, you will often hear this phrase tossed around: “the right choice.” Which one is the right choice? am I making the right choice? I bolded those words because they are heavy words. Sometimes I like to imagine the human psyche like a backpack, and using those words is like putting rocks in it. Except (R.I.P. metaphor) the rocks are fake rocks, and when you realize that, they become much lighter.
There’s a whole worldview hiding in those words, a system of thought in which each of our lives has been scripted (or at least blocked) for us. We have somehow come to believe that this script exists (sometimes we become suspicious that everyone else has one), but we don’t have a copy. Alternately, a lot of people think they’re writing the script, but they’ve started with the 3rd act, so they’re trying to steer each scene towards that final act. Whoever you think is deciding your fate, these ideas seem to lead to a sense of what you “should” be doing. “Should” seems like a lighter word, because we use it all the time, like “you should wash your hands” or “you shouldn’t eat those week-old leftovers.” However, when you turn that word on yourself, it’s a bit like putting chains on your feet. Not only do they weigh you down, they make a terrible rattling noise that makes your palms sweaty and your mouth dry, and keeps you looking over your shoulder a lot.
In case it weren’t apparent, I take issue with “the right choice.” This makes me really annoying when people want advice and I’m either in life coach mode (“What is your heart telling you?”) or wannabe zen mode (“I don’t really believe in right or wrong choices… but what is your heart telling you?”) I know it sometimes comes across as noncommittal, indecisive, or uncaring, but I truly believe that in about 90% of cases, there is no right or wrong choice. There is only the choice you make, and the choices you don’t. If you’re looking for more rocks to put in your backpack, start thinking about what could have been, how things would be different or better if you had only done such and the other… Make sure to add a liquid to that regret smoothie so it blends properly.
In case I’m sounding too nihilistic, let me elaborate. I do not believe that our choices don’t matter, but I think they matter less than we think. I guess you could say “to assume we have way more control over our lives than we actually do is human, to actually have the power to control our lives and not exert it, divine” (here, have some free insight into my theology). Every decision you make has positive results and negative results. Every decision you make has positive results and negative results.
You may have come across the Parable of the Chinese Farmer in some form or another. It’s often quoted in Taoist or zen Buddhist or New Age circles. Funnily enough, I first read it in the book The Millennial Game Plan by Laura Shin (a really well-written and encouraging book about how to make and handle money as an American millennial; I highly recommend it if you’re feeling nervous and/or vaguely apocalyptic about your finances). To summarize the tale: a bunch of stuff happens to a farmer. His neighbors are quick to make strong value judgments about each thing that happens (“that’s great!” “that’s terrible!”), but the farmer gives a noncommittal (indecisive, uncaring?) response. The point is not that he thinks these events are meaningless, but that he patiently waits for the results rather than immediately relegating them to either end of the amazing-horrible spectrum.
I’ll admit, this is easier to do with things that happen to you rather than things you have to do. Maybe you can readily accept the fender-bender that lead to you meeting your spouse, or that time you had to stay late at work, but on your way home you saw the fluffiest dog to ever exist as not wholly, entirely, and uniformly terrible things. However, how does that apply to which college to attend, or whether to quit your stable job, sell your car, and move to a foreign country (too on the nose? sorry.)? Try reminding yourself that every option has (for all you know) equal chances of having positive results and negative results in any amount. There is not a right choice (causing total happiness and success in all you endeavors) or a wrong choice (catastrophe, permanent misery). There might not even be a “better” choice (stay tuned for my invective against the word “better,” most useless of all English words). Go ahead and make that pro-con list if it helps you; I do that too, but all your pros and all your cons are not real, they are hypothetical and might never happen (or they might happen but the “con” turns out to be a pro, or vice versa). The way I see it, these are all you have to go on: Does this choice seem to conform to your morality, is your heart/brain/gut (whatever organ you make decisions with) pointing this way, and does it have potential benefits? Are you ready to accept and deal with the consequences of said decision? That’s it. Please let me know if you think I’ve left anything out.
To sum up, there are no right (or wrong) choices, only choices that seem right at the time. Every decision you make, hell, everything you do will have positive results and negative ones. You are not in control of those results, but can you handle them and learn from them? Probably yes. So, go in peace knowing that whichever way you choose, good things will follow, and that nothing sweet little you can do could ever knock the earth out of her orbit.
I can already think of people in my life who would probably be freaked out by the above ideas rather than comforted by them, but I hope at some point they help you take some rocks out of your backpack.
*I’m referring to situations where people are actually asking your opinion, not the times when they just want to talk freely about their damn feelings and be listened to and supported for once without you always trying to solve everything.