Why think about choices?
I’ve been soul-searching recently. Delving into my attitudes towards myself, my career, my relationships with friends and dating. I’ve reflected a lot on the nature of choice and motivation. Two questions continually resurface themselves.
- What are my values and beliefs?
- What does my ideal future look like?
- Is that ideal vision reasonably achievable and aligned with my values?
Where do our beliefs originate?
I’m slowly training myself to see the advice I’ve gotten from parents, teachers, friends, colleagues, and books is not what defines me. This advice is important to me, but it isn’t 1) my belief system or 2) the belief system I need to rebel against. It is a set of beliefs I’ve gathered that help inform my personal beliefs and practices.
I’ve found I am often motivated to figure out ways to 1) satisfy others’ expectations or 2) rebel against others’ expectations. Neither of these is a healthy decision-making method. This realization is not a slight on the people I love and surround myself with. It is an acknowledgement that I am responsible for the choices I make and the lifestyle I live. I alone can be assertive, express personal integrity, make conscious choices, live purposefully, accept myself, and be responsible to my family, friends, community, country, and religious institution.
With this personal responsibility comes tremendous power. It requires tremendous vigilance against my inclination to satisfy others or to rebel against others.
Over the past few years I’ve leaned towards challenging the status quo of the communities I am a part of. I felt these communities (family, friends, church, political system) assumed that I would: wait patiently for an acceptable wife (because good things come to those who wait), give up everything for my eventual kids (because it’s my duty and I’m a selfish millennial if I don’t), buy a house in a boring neighborhood, severely restrict my ability to travel, deal with crippling anxiety over the fact that I don’t control anything in my life anymore, and live a life that was somewhat happy but lacked adventure and spontaneity. These are gross generalizations. Reality is never so simple. I don’t mean to discount these things. I do believe they are valuable. But they are valuable because I find them valuable, not because I either desire to express obedience or rebellion against the powers and people who preach these values. My association of my own life choices with a reaction to others’ is the source of the judgements I’ve made about those choices. Thus I hear others’ say things like “marriage is all about sacrifice” and “it’s not as easy to travel when you have kids” and my immediate reaction is to fight against these things because they sound terrible. A healthier option would be to evaluate the pro’s and con’s of each lifestyle choice from the way their ultimate impact on my life as a whole. The way people I see as authority figures and influencers communicate their “life advice” feeds into my reaction to them. However, it is my duty to take what they say in this context: people are naturally inclined to present themselves as heroes and martyrs and leave out the positive aspects of decisions. The positive aspects of marriage, children, and sacrifice are difficult to communicate because these are lived experiences, whereas the loss of one’s freedom is nebulous and easy fodder to fearmonger single persons.
Looking back at past choices
I can admit that I’ve certainly erred on the side of adventure and spontaneity. I’ve sought out travel, company, and activities that feed this desire. This desire was and is primarily based as a reaction to the beliefs I feel it is assumed I am supposed to have by those around me. Don’t misread this that I’ve destroyed my life or made destructive and dangerous decisions. I haven’t. But, I’ve lived and made choices with the fear that, if I don’t, my ultimate fate rests in a boring, pointlessly sacrificial life. I often allow fear, guilt, and respect be the benchmark for my choices, whether a benchmark to follow or eschew.
I was living for pleasure. Pleasure in rebellion. Pleasure in doing my own thing. Pleasure in feeling free from the belief systems which I felt had predetermined my life in ways that made me extremely uncomfortable. By pleasure I mean short-term reactionary behavior.
At the heart of these choices was reaction. I wasn’t doing what made me joyful and satisfied. I was was reacting. I am reacting. Reaction is not self-definition. It is not true freedom. It doesn’t represent respect towards oneself or towards anyone else. Reaction is not an act of personal integrity. It is a poor motivation to do something out of pure spite or pure obedience, without other reasons.
Joy and Pleasure
The contrasting, yet similar words, joy and pleasure come to mind. Pleasure is reactionary. It is a response we get from reacting to our senses. It can be a reaction to the way our bodies feel, the way we feel about a person, a belief system, or a reaction we want to have to any situation. Pleasure is not bad in itself.
Joy is a deeper sense of satisfaction that something we see or do aligns with the way we believe or wish the world would be. Joy lasts. Joy has a sense of personal ownership. If you feel joyful about something it is because you felt you a personal stake in what happened. Joy can lead to pleasure. Joy is usefully pleasureable. But joy is deeper than pleasure. Joy can withstand periods of heartache and trials. Joy has no baggage. There is a fullness of meaning to it that you know when you feel it.
I don’t believe that pleasure is bad. Pleasure in a cold glass of beer on a hot day. Pleasure in seeing a pretty girl walk by. Pleasure in completing a paper or complex work task.
Identifying joyful things
But all our lives need joy. Joy is an indicator that we’re living a life…
- Conscious of itself
- Accepting of itself
- Responsible for the impacts of our actions.
- Wholly integrated between our thoughts, words, and actions.
Identifying the things in our lives that are purely reactionary (or purely obedient) to a set of rules or expectations others have of us will increase our sense of meaning and purposefulness and bring a sense of joy to our lives. This applies to people of any belief, religion, or lack thereof.
What brings you joy? What brings you pleasure but not joy? What in life are you doing to satisfy or react to others’ expectations?
In visioning one’s life. I believe we need to evaluate those things that bring us joy and double down on them. Then we should find the things that we’re doing for pleasure (i.e. reactionary or obedient). And these things should be evaluated. This exercise will help us live a happier, more sustainable, and more fulfilled life. It will help us find our own voice and desires within the context of a noisy society, community, and friend group, and family.
Owning your life
This isn’t to say you’ll end up with beliefs different from those around you. The point is that you’ll end up owning your beliefs. You will stand by them. They will bring you joy. Almost all of us have the ability to seek out what we believe to be true and just and valuable in this world and to strive to double down on those things. We also have a need to eliminate short-term, reactionary thinking.
Taking the journey to define one’s own values is important. It helps clarify where we can be fulfilled and where we are wasting your time. It will be evident in the things that bring lasting joy vs. things that are reactionary or obedient for a quick sense of pleasure. Every person, despite having differing beliefs, can live a life that is integrated in thoughts, words, and actions. This life can provide deep fulfillment and joy that comes from within, not as a reaction to anyone or anything else.