“Why did you do that?” she asks. I opt for honesty. “I have no idea.”
It’s true. I don’t know why I do most of the things I do. I never have.
I used to think I did. Back when I thought it was a simple matter of weighing the options and choosing the best one. Back when I thought decision-making was a logical and transparent process (make your pros-cons list and act accordingly) Back when I still believed I was free to choose whatever path I wanted to choose in life. Back when I hadn’t experienced enough of life to know that none of these things are true.
I am older now, and now I know that all my decisions, my life choices, are immersed in a vast sea of prejudices and biases that I am no more aware of than a fish is aware of the water in which it swims. Now I know that a thousand different strands of genetics and personal history and life experience and biochemistry have conspired to shape me in ways I am mostly ignorant of. Now I know that most of the things that drive me are subterranean, subtext beneath the text, hidden from my conscious mind, inaccessible; yet, they exert a powerful influence on everything I think and do and believe. Now I know that my motives for doing the things I do are, for the most part, something different than I think.
Bumper sticker: “Don’t believe everything you think.”
Some relevant observations:
- Economic success in America is largely determined by the zip code you grew up in.
- In any given situation, many of the paths we might choose are not visible on our mental map of the world, so they are not really options at all.
- A child growing up in Somalia lives an extremely constrained life; she has very few real choices. The same is true of a child growing up in an inner city neighborhood. The same is true of a child with Downs Syndrome growing up anywhere.
- If you were sexually abused as a child, there is a very good chance that you will go through life making bad relationship choices and never know why.
I am not a fatalist. I believe we make real choices every day, and that they actually matter. If nothing else, quantum mechanics guarantees at least some level of randomness built into the fabric of the universe, and therefore an escape from determinism. I also believe there is room for critical thinking skills, which enable us to bring to the surface things that are normally hidden. There is also room for psychotherapy — professional and otherwise — which enables us to discover a plethora of forces in our lives that we would not otherwise have noticed. And there is life itself, the simple act of living, the years of experience that reveal much that was hidden from us when we were young.
I am an optimist. I just don’t want to be a deluded optimist. Or an arrogant one. Beware of hubris, perhaps the greatest delusion of all (see The Illiad).
I also believe in a God who is not subject to the same constraints, or to any constraints, and who can and does call me out of the bondage of the will (Martin Luther wrote a book about that) and into the freedom of the Spirit (the Apostle Paul talked a lot about that). To believe this, is called faith.
“Why did you do that?” she asks. I opt for honesty. “I think it has something to do with the fact that I grew up in poverty, and my mother used to give me The Look that I interpreted to mean, ‘You have disappointed me, you are unacceptable,’ and this made me think that my worth as a human being depends on my ability to win the approval of everyone around me, and that makes me a workaholic because how else can I meet everybody’s expectations of me and therefore be loved and accepted, and that makes me angry because it’s not fair because I can’t possibly meet everybody’s expectations.”
“Or maybe I’m just having a bad day.”