“The caged bird sings, even within the cage, because it can. The caged bird has a choice, and he can choose to sing.”
~Maya Angelou, – I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
Might As Well Be Great
For most of my parents’ married life, my father dabbled in risky business ventures. Years of financial ups and downs had taken a toll on my family. As a result, my father accepted a stable teaching position at a small technical school during my adolescent years. I also enrolled in a few classes there, which allowed me to see my dad in social situations normally reserved for his colleagues. As he walked the halls of the school, his colleagues would greet him with the traditional, “How are you?” He would always answer, “Might as well be great!”
From the perspective of adulthood, I understand that those years were difficult for my dad. Working a nine to five job with an established curriculum and no room for creativity had a stifling effect on him. His attitude of, “might as well be great,” was his way of making a choice to be happy despite unfavorable circumstances.
Because of this attitude, he was able not only to provide for our family by teaching, but also take classes himself. After four years, he completed a Bachelor’s degree and received his Master’s through an outreach extension program.
The measure of a person comes down to a culmination of small choices. The choices are woven together like threads of a tapestry. Everything you were in the past, you are now, and everything you will become in the future rests in the small, seemingly ordinary decisions of everyday life.
Each decision seems as insignificant as an individual thread, which can hardly be seen when looking at the whole tapestry, but the decisions accumulate. One day you realize that your individual choices became the intricate tapestry of your life.
- Do I take ballet? Choice.
- Do I study for this test or go out with my friends? Choice.
- Do I remain quiet, or do I voice my feelings? Choice.
- Do I go to college or stay in my job because I am afraid of failure? Choice.
- Do I live my life in fear of my own inadequacies? Choice.
- Do I believe that I have value and learn to trust the process of life and the light within me? Choice.
Our Choices Impact Our Health
When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I went into the doctor’s office for a routine checkup. After taking my measurements, the doctor asked me what was going on in my life. I told him about my three young children and what I did with my time. “No, no,” he replied. “I need to know what is going on in your LIFE!” He then explained that I had severe toxemia, high blood pressure, and that my baby’s health was in danger.
Since I had always been the picture of perfect health, the doctor wanted to know what was going on with me emotionally.
The truth was that my family was in turmoil. I cried as I told the doctor that my parents, who’d been married 30 years, were in the process of an emotional divorce. I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me and that my proper Christian upbringing had been a lie. I was sure the doctor would understand why I had no choice but to feel sorry for myself, but the doctor offered no sympathy.
He asked me if my falling apart helped my parents. He carefully explained that, while I couldn’t control the the choices my parents made, I could certainly control my reaction to my parents’ divorce. Then he gave me eight weeks of bed rest to think it over.
After a couple of days in bed, stewing over the doctor’s advice, I finally had my “aha” moment. I had a choice about the way I was feeling! I was not at the mercy of my current circumstances; I could respond to my parents’ actions in any way I wanted. I could love and support them, but I didn’t need to be destroyed by their divorce.
The understanding of the breadth of choice available to me completely changed my outlook on life, empowered me, and even inspired me to eventually become a therapist.
Your Ability To Choose Empowers You
Now I counsel a diverse group of people from various walks of life. Despite their differences, however, they seem to have a common belief that they have no choice but to be miserable because of their lifes’ situations. Through therapy, some clients come to understand that they can grow and learn from their victimization–they have a say in the matter.
Unfortunately, others choose to remain in the victim role, thereby gaining little understanding or insight from their painful life experiences.
One of my 63 year-old clients came to therapy and cried the entire session about how miserable her husband was making her. She felt like everything in her life was controlled by him: when she got up each morning, when she went into the kitchen, how she would blink, etc.
It soon became obvious that she was attending therapy to change her husband, not herself. When I invited her to join a Womens’ Empowerment Group, she exclaimed, “Empowered! I can’t be empowered. My husband won’t let me.” She had blinders on and couldn’t see the opportunities available to her. She was miserable and believed she had no choice but to be so.
Holocaust survivor and author of “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Victor Frankl, offered a different perspective. Even though he was held in a concentration camp, under the most dire of circumstances, he was able to find meaning in his experience because he choose to. He could have decided to be miserable and defeated, but chose to feel hope and love instead.
Victor Frankl explained that, “in spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen.” He learned to retreat to an inner life–a place where he had complete control. The guards might be able to treat him with extreme cruelty, but they could not take this inner-life from him. In this he had choice.
“You can take all away from a human being but you can never take away the power of choice…freedom is the ability to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
~Viktor E Frankl, – Man’s Search For Meaning
Frankl further explained that, even while living in the concentration camp, he was able to appreciate nature as never before. He told of an evening where the prisoners were taking their evening meal of a little bowl soup. Suddenly, a fellow prisoner rushed into the room and bade them to come out and see the wonderful sunset.
Frankl said, “Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate gray mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoners said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!’” (pg 62-63).
Victor Frankl found the great truths of life in a concentration camp of all places. His example is a great testimony of the power of choice–no matter how extreme our life experiences are.
As we learn that we have a choice, we also learn to stop blaming other people or circumstances for our lives. Assuming accountability for our choices can be frightening at first, but when we take personal responsibility, we feel a level of freedom. It is like the world opens up to us.
Next time you find yourself saying, “I have to,” or “I can’t,” replace it with “I choose not to.” When you notice yourself thinking, “I should have done it this way,” or “I could have done that instead,” come back to the present moment to make a choice of what you can do in the here and now.
Just this simple shift in perspective takes you out of the victim role and into a place of peaceful surrender. Our experiences mold us and teach us, thereby giving meaning to our lives. Life is always changing and evolving, but there is always a constant: within our situation, we always have choice.