My life is a sequence of choices. Day-in-day-out, one decision after the next has all led to me this precise moment of sitting on my brown sofa in my living room, in my apartment, watching the golden California sun, slowly set its way over the hilly San Francisco terrain. As the evening light streams through the windows to illuminate the room, I find myself desperately searching for the words to tell you that for the last two weeks, my mind has been preoccupied with the very simple idea of choice.
Life is ruled by choice. What to eat, where to live, who to date, what to study, where to go on vacation, who to vote for, and ultimately, what significance if any, does our short existence on this planet have? The choices we make, some small, others big, weave themselves together into what becomes the tapestry of our being.
What I really want to draw your attention towards though, is the actual profound power of a choice. Because unlike animals, whose lives are governed by pre-programmed instinctive responses—like blinking—you can actually reflect on your decisions. You can take a perfectly random decision in greater context, and then decide to override your initial opinion, if you want. For 3.5 billion years, no living organism had that power. It’s only in the last 200,000 years or so, that this remarkable ability to imagine alternative realities and then choose the most favorable option, has been at our disposal. Oh, how far we’ve come.
But today, we’re confronted by nothing but choices. Researchers estimate that in a given day, the average person makes somewhere around 35,000 decisions. The sheer volume of such a figure is crushing, and so to cope, we automate as many choices as possible to our subconscious memory. Just imagine how exhausting it’d be if you had to rediscover what you like every day; so to trim the number of daily choices, we adopt habits and taste and personalities, all reflecting our never-ending river of choices.
This is where it starts to get messy. Because in the time-saving automatic decision-mode that our brains have so cleverly adopted to handle our overwhelming load of choices, we lose something. In reallocating choices to instincts, we give up the special power of forming our own, unbiased, original thoughts. We surrender the power of attention.
No writer better captured this dilemma, than David Foster Wallace. In his sublime commencement speech to Kenyon University entitled, This Is Water, David reminds us that the magical ability to decide how we see the world still exists:
If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important—if you want to operate on your default setting—then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.
I think I’ve forgotten that, somehow. And so, it’s good to be reminded. Whether it’s in comprehending a great loss, a confrontation with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, or just a small miscommunication with your significant other, you forever and always have the power to at least try to see things differently, to consider another possible reality.
And now, my sun has set. The room is much darker than when I first sat down. But I’m still here, searching for words. I heard someone today say that beauty, “Is found in the things that make us feel more alive.” I definitely recognize the beauty in this ability to make choices; to decide what we like, what we dislike, what we love, and ultimately the kind of person we want to be. Because in the thicket of life, it’s too easy to feel like we no longer have those choices, to attribute our circumstances with our results. But whenever you give this responsibility to someone or something other than yourself, you surrender the beauty that is choice. In the last paragraph of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Thoreau writes, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” I think it’s this power of directable attention that he’s alluding to. I like to believe he too was awakened to the capital-T Truth of our capability to decide to see the world differently. We all have it; but I suppose a great deal of using this god-like gift, depends largely on your perspective.