The Illusion of Choicelessness

I first wrote this title down several months ago, but that was how far that particular post went. This week, however, I had a moment on the cushion when I realized that I really could do everything completely differently. I am not trapped by promises and contracts, I choose to uphold them.

I could:

  • Sell the house, cash in the equity, buy a house in town, get rid of the car and all our financial worries would go away.
  • Stop all this writing, apply around the country until I found a job that paid me a decent amount and do the long-distance academic commute thing
  • Get off the cushion, leave my husband sitting on his, get into the car and drive to Ontario without providing a forwarding address. For that matter, I have the right to live and work in Europe. And a passport. The possibilities are endless

What stops me from doing any of these things is NOT external forces. I could actually do any of those things, as long as I were willing to accept the consequences.

In most of these cases, the consequence that holds me back is heartbroken children. I can imagine getting to the point of chucking it all and moving to Tahiti. Sometimes I even entertain these rather juicy escape fantasies during my not-meditation. Those are the drifty parts between following the breath. It is where my greatest insights come from, but as one of my meditation teachers pointed out, “You have to be able to label even your greatest insights, ‘thinking,’ and return to the breath. This is a leap of faith.” The insight, though, is that it is not my children that keep me here. It is the commitments that I made to these people when I brought them into the world. I could leave them to deal with their heartbreak, accept the judgment of my community, and walk away. I choose not to, every time I come home. It is a question of Right Action.

In the first case, though, which came up with my earlier struggles with the car, I would feel like I had completely failed at my attempts in rural sustainable living. Also, I would miss the river. I find myself standing and looking at the river, knowing that if I were willing to give this up, I could go to Italy. I have an awareness of clinging: that by holding onto this view, this place, I am missing out on other opportunities. This is a great opportunity to practice aparigraha, or Non-grasping. I can sit with that sensation of loss in some mythical time in the future, that fear, the taste of failure and longing in my mouth as I imagine the words, “Remember when we had that great house in Cape Breton?” I can touch this… and then let it go. It is not. Right now, this desk, these eyes, looking over this river IS. It won’t always be, but for now, it IS. The feeling of choicelessness is really something else entirely… fear. Fear of the unknown, loss of (the illusion of) control, and a tendency to tell stories of disaster. “I can’t choose to sell my house!”

These experiences of internal struggle remind me of the image in the Tarot Eight of Swords:

The woman on this card is blindfolded, tied up, and surrounded by swords. Yet her feet are unbound, there are no captors, and she could free herself and walk away. She just can’t see it. Yet. 

I am so familiar with this sensation… although if I were to draw my own Eight of Swords, she would probably be standing in the middle of a messy kitchen with a screaming toddler, with a laptop full of unfinished stories in the background.

I’m not saying that all things are possible. I have not suddenly become a convert to the way of The Secret. Some situations are horrifying, and the way out goes through struggle, agony, and actual danger. Sometimes there really are captors. Choices may be drastically limited by financial and social resources. But the ability to choose: There’s the rub. We bat around the phrase, “Beggars can’t be choosers.” To this I say: Of course they can. Choice is what remains when all else is lost. (If you do not believe me, as I have never lost everything, ask Viktor Frankl, who did.)

Please don’t hear my position as chirpy, or as victim blaming. People in catastrophic situations exercise their agency every day in the face of overwhelming odds, but success isn’t guaranteed. Privilege exists. We can only choose among the stories that we’ve heard. The way out often involves surrendering our deepest-held, most sacred beliefs about self, relationship, social obligation, success, and meaning. But the structures surrounding a situation are limiting, not deterministic.

Now that I have finished this post, I can see how astonishingly fabulous my life is right this minute, but I still find myself standing in the middle of the kitchen, turning in place, and feeling overwhelmed. So if, like me, you are feeling trapped in a life of freedom, with a modicum of resources, cast off the blindfold, and untie your hands. Make a list of ways out, no matter how ludicrous. Meditate, contemplate, journal, seek therapy, talk to your minister, change your life, quit your job, take up extreme sports… or don’t… but know that it is a choice. (3/362)

8 responses to “The Illusion of Choicelessness”

  1. oh Seonaid, you are a rare person. who could have seen 20 years ago, that you would write this, right when I need it.

  2. Well said, as always.

    I have sometimes worked through similar thoughts, ending up at the notion, “want what you want.” I may think I don’t want to grade a pile of student essays, but that’s part of my job and I want my job, so, on a deeper level, I do want to mark those papers. You can’t want only part of what you want.

    • Indeed. Sometimes we “have” to do things because they are precursors, or necessary components of something that we DO want. There is a Chopping wood, carrying water aspect to grading papers. Somebody has to do that work… and make dinner, and wash the kitchen floor, and make sure that the bills get paid. So we choose to do those things because we value a full belly, and a clean house, and not getting collection phone calls. Even when they are frustrating, and boring, and exhausting and we’d rather be playing on the new Wii.

  3. Interesting post! This reminds me of when people say to me “oh you’re so lucky you can stay home with your kids”, or “you’re so lucky you can homeschool”. Every time I hear this, I’m thinking, no, this was a CHOICE, this was the plan, it wasn’t luck LOL.

  4. I love this!

    And you’re so bang-on about the children. I made a commitment to them, they are still very young, and so I consider myself bound to them. It’s a choice I make, though. And even making that choice, I can still change my life in countless ways.

  5. Thank you, thank you for this. Friday I was stuck in the “too much in my head” mind loop, and then I read this. I printed it out as I especially wanted the the Eight of Swords pic.

    The day still didn’t go much better (my FB status that evening was, “had a frustrating & hard day dealing with inner demons (grant funded job the new congress is likely to axe and a Good Will Hunting Job at that) and teenage ones (jr high school age sexuality class that was beserk tonight… they’re waaaay too cool for what we have to teach)).

    So many times we are the ones who bond, blindfold, gag and back ourselves into mental corners, forgetting all the time we are free to walk out.

    • In a slightly more woo-woo vein than the original post, the reason I’m familiar with the Eight of Swords was that it kept coming up in my readings before I quit the job and started actually doing my writing. Hope that things are going better. Or at least that you feel like you have some choice.