Sounds appealing doesn’t it. Things not going well? – make a better choice. Facing obstacles or barriers in your life? – make a different choice. Simple really.
It’s true enough – we all do have choices. However, we do not all have the same choices. Some of us have very limited choices, whereas others have almost limitless choice. For some, the choices may be between one unwelcome outcome and another unwelcome outcome – with no choice really being desirable.
The next step along this path of choosing is to create your own reality. By treading this path we get to the point where the Universe conspires with us to give us what we desire. This all happens because of the choices we make. If we make good choices then the reality that we create will be good also.
From this perspective it is very easy to take up a moralistic stance that says that those that make bad mistakes deserve the reality they create for themselves.
Making choices is good in theory. In practice, however, it is all just a little naive. Naive for three major reasons:
- The environment within which we all make choices is not an equitable one. It is not a level playing field.
- People do the best they can from the understandings, knowledge and skills that they possess at the time.
- We are all intimately linked with one another and our world. None of us make our decisions in isolation or independent of all the other decisions that are being made.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have clearly demonstrated that there is a strong correlation between inequality and social mobility, mental health, educational performance and a range of other social indicators. In their book The Spirit Level they note that
“bigger income differences seem to solidify the social structure and decrease the chances of upward mobility. Where there are greater inequalities of outcome, equal opportunity is a significantly more distant prospect.” 1When children are raised in poverty the choices they have as adults are significantly reduced, “affecting every thing from (their) job prospects to (their) marital happiness.”2
As inequality in a society increases the ability of people to make positive life choices decreases. Making choices is not simply a question of individual choice. Making choices becomes a political act; choices that those with greater access to power, resources or prestige make easily, not realising that those with less access have less options available.
Doing Our Best
One of the insights of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is that people do the best they can with the resources available to them at the time. The key phrases here are available and at the time.
This understanding is a crucial one, because it recognises that people do not wilfully make bad choices. Rather, people make the best choice they can with the knowledge, experience and skills that they have available. Rather than blaming people for their decisions, NLP uses this insight to work compassionately with people.
This means that we cannot judge others from our own understanding, perspective or worldview.
When we tell others to make better choices, or even that “you have a choice,” we are often ignoring the interplay between people and that the choices we make are not mutually exclusive. We are intimately connected, bound together in a vast web of life.
The idea that we have choices in life and that if we make good choices then good things will happen to us is rooted in Cartesian linear causality thinking. This thinking is all very well if we apply it to billiard balls bouncing off one another on a billiard table. But, it is woefully inadequate as a system of thought when it comes to how the world works.
Joanna Macy is a well respected systems thinker and Buddhist practitioner. Now in her 80s, she describes the move from linear thinking to systems thinking in a book published more than 20 years ago:
“Linear, one-way causal premises proved inadequate, for these can be applied only piecemeal to two variables at a time. As the pattern-building interactions of phenomena were studied, a different kind of causality came into view, one that is mutual, involving interdependence and reciprocity between causes and effects. Such a notion, which is an anomaly within the linear paradigm that has dominated Western culture, bears a striking similarity to the Buddhist teaching of causality…”3In other words, we are not individuals acting only in our own sheltered shell, with all decisions and choices being mutually independent of other decisions and choices of other people.
Others are making choices all the time, and often we have little control over the choices they make and the outcomes of those choices. We have even less control the further removed from the centres of power, influence and resources we are.
Yes, we do make choices. We all do, all the time. But, for us to judge others based on the choices they make is naive and neglects to take into account the political, social, cultural and interdependent realities of the world.
1. Wilkinson & Pickett, The Spirit Level, Penguin, London, 2009, 2010, p 169
2. Anthony W Orlando (business/economics lecturer, California State University), “Not Everyone has the Tools to Become Rich: How our childhood shapes our ability to succeed,” Huffington Post, September 2014.
3. Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1991.