Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. — Viktor Frankl
We are immersed in choice every waking moment of our lives. Whether it’s a single day or a period spanning decades, the rhythms of our lives are dictated by choice. Over the course of a lifetime our growth and decay, and our joys and sorrows are all colored by choice.
The act of choosing is a distinctively human experience. No other animal, as far as we know, has the ability to agonize over a decision. Baboons, for instance, never get paralyzed thinking whether they should also get fries with their burger. The burden of such a momentous decision lies solely on human shoulders.
Given this unique ability, it is surprising that we often tell ourselves that we have lost the ability to choose. I don’t mean this in the sense of being overwhelmed by the number of choices at offer. Rather, I’m alluding to the attitude of resignation that we adopt towards an undesirable life situation. As long as it is not completely unbearable, we continue to tell ourselves that there is nothing we can do about it. Why?
I believe there are two reasons for this, both of which have nothing to do with a lack of choice.
The first is that we are simply afraid of the consequences of the choice which, deep down, we know we have. This fear is what is then conveniently dressed up as a lack of options. So when we complain about being stuck in a dead-end job but don’t make a change, we are simply shying away from the uncertainty and discomfort that we can imagine in our minds.
The second case is where we simply want to separate ourselves from the responsibility of deciding. The oft-used expression ‘I have no choice’, sounds so absolute precisely because it convinces us that our fate is not in our hands. By declaring that we have little choice, we can convey bad news to ourselves without feeling personally culpable.
What is common to both these situations is that a choice has still been made, even if we don’t realize it. As William James said:
When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice.
Furthermore, regardless of whether you make a choice or not, you incur an opportunity cost. If you choose the beach for your vacation, you give up on going to the mountains. Similarly, when you don’t take make the choice, you give up something too. Deciding not to take the plunge on your business idea means you would never find out what is possible.
However, there are times when not doing anything is the best course of action. Maybe the timing is not right or the best option is yet to emerge. So how is this situation different from the one where we avoid making a choice?
The answer lies in simply being aware.
It is a well-established truth that all humans crave autonomy. A person who can decide her own actions is not only happier, but also healthier than someone else who has little control over her circumstances. But everyone cannot be the top dog, completely free to make their own choices. After all, everyone has some constraint or another. What we can do, however, is be more deliberate about our choices, irrespective of whether the outcome is ideal.
Take the example of the meaningless job. Sure, you might not be in a position to quit right now and start your own business, but there is a huge difference in being helpless about it and knowing that staying put is part of a larger plan. Such a mindset not only frees you up to take positive action, but also teaches you to take the reins of your life in your own hands.
Moreover, as Frankl and the ancient Stoic philosophers have taught us, even when all hope seems lost there is still one thing left: our ability to choose our response. This sounds cliched, yes, but only because we need constant reminding of it.
Seen differently, not having any external choice is actually liberating, because the only way you can look is inwards. You can let go, but still retain the privilege of choosing. It is precisely in this sweet spot between freedom and responsibility, that we can grasp the real essence of life.