Sunday, July 25, 2010

Decisions, Decisions

Dear NIP,
            It took me 33 years to believe in myself. If you don’t believe in yourself as much as you should, I can let you in on my secret. It’s just a simple choice. Our lives in sum are, in many ways, the total of all the choices we make or have made, whether consciously or not. I think the change came for me when I decided to take my life back. At the height of my cynicism, I convinced myself that there were simply elements that were beyond my control and in some ways I would always be a victim of circumstance—or so it would seem. The importance of choice is often understated; we let it play such a minor role in our daily lives because we dismiss how much we can actually accomplish through our own autonomy. As I became more mindful of the choices I was making, my life turned around rather quickly. My happiness and personal satisfaction increased because I was making choices that worked toward those aims. Anyone can do this, all it takes is the realization that no matter what the situation, what the circumstance, you always have a choice.
            That statement may sound familiar because it is number 4 on my list of “Top Ten Secrets.” More often than not, however, many of us forget this. Through the choices we make, we sculpt our lives. The more we focus on positive choices that build and reinforce our integrity and sense of self-worth, the more our sense of autonomy starts to flourish. The first 32 years of my life this was extremely difficult because I was subconsciously defeated. Much like I mentioned in “Strive,” the subconscious mind cannot discern fact from fiction. As you learn to discipline your own mind, the use of choice can help you accept what is useful while rejecting that for which you have no need. We often take criticism with a knee-jerk reaction, allowing our emotions to have the first say in the matter. Upon stepping back and examining any such situation, however, it is easy to see how choice can deflect or lessen these reactions. If someone were to say something that in the past may have gotten me riled, I now try to pause before letting emotion take control. In time, you’ll find that you can literally choose your emotional state. Why get upset over something that is not worth wasting the emotional energy? No one’s perfect, either. Sometimes there may be a situation that arises that you feel so overwhelmed that you can’t help responding emotionally. Even if that’s so, make a choice to allow yourself only a certain amount of time to be upset. Once that hour, afternoon, or day has passed, move on. If you still feel that emotional energy, make another choice to channel it into something productive. Remember, there is always another option—you always have a choice.
            This isn’t to say that making these types of choices will come easily. It takes practice and patience to develop one’s autonomy through choice, but in the most basic sense we are all burgeoning existentialists. We all choose what has meaning and value in our lives, and more often than not these ideals are borne through our choices/actions. Moreover, this is a constant work-in-progress. I have to assiduously reexamine what’s important to my life and jettison the frivolous distractions that do not have a direct positive impact. The more you do this, the more you’ll hone your awareness and discipline your mind. This in turn will allow your autonomy to grow in massive strides. I should offer a caveat, though, because always having a choice can be a double-edged sword.
            When we’re not careful, bad choices can wreak havoc in our lives…and the lives of others. For the longest time, I—like many people—would externalize the effects of the bad choices I had made. I didn’t see an immediate causal link to my choice, and I would often perceive these seemingly random injustices as part of a world that was “out-to-get-me.” We’ve all played the victim card at one time or another in our lives. I’d like to think that I didn’t play it too much, but I’m sure I did my share. If you want to take control of your life, to reclaim any sense of power and personal autonomy, it begins with the realization that you create your own destiny. Obviously, this is done through the choices we make. I’m sure there will be some naysayers out there, but here’s how I see the world at this point in my life.
            Though I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist in a religious sense, I think the core of my worldview is overwhelmingly Buddhist. Buddhism believes in a concept known as pratityasamutpada, which is often translated as “codependent origination.” This means that X (event, object, whatever) cannot arise into existence without Y (some contingent condition) being present. We may or may not know what this is, but it’s rather basic causality. Therefore, everything in the world is interdependent and needs something else for its existence. We need oxygen. Plants need carbon dioxide. I won’t drag this out forever. But let’s extrapolate this to our lives. It’s easy to see how the choices we make are X, and the choices of others essentially make up Y. I don’t believe in fate in the sense that every action is preordained, but I do believe in a fate that is the culmination of permutations of reality through our collective choices. Take a chance meeting with someone as an example. Wherever you bumped into one another, each of you had made a choice to go to that place at that time. There doesn’t have to be any weird or mysterious meaning to it—it’s simply a product of our choices. And, yes, I’m sure you may want to object and say that there are things out of our control—which is absolutely true—but even how we address those situations when they arise can be handled judiciously and graciously through choice if we allow ourselves.
Once I began to realize that my life was a product of my choices, I paid much more attention to them. I didn’t feel like a victim anymore because I had the power to accept or deny what had bearing on my life through my choices. This shift in my autonomy helped me feel better about who I was as a person and what my purpose in life should be. The victim who once let himself be abused by social standing, cultural convention, or peer pressure disappeared. In time I learned not only to accept myself for who I am and what I could give this world, but actually that I could get even better. That I could push myself. That I could define myself through my actions, and those actions began with the choices I made at nearly every single moment. While the self-confidence I’ve gained in the last two years has a lot to do with the physical changes I’ve challenged myself to make, it has much more so to do with winning the mental battle. Before I could change for the better, I had to make that choice. I had to choose between being a victim and letting life happen to me, or taking my life back and letting me happen to life.
What I want you to realize is that you are more powerful than you imagine. Having the ability to make sound choices that will productively build our lives for the  better is what makes the human condition so wonderful. We really can fashion the world as we see fit, but many of us choose not to do so. Many of us get so wrapped up in the prefabricated notions of what constitutes “life” that we aren’t mindful of the choices we make. Sometimes choices can seem minor and insignificant but ultimately have a huge role later on in our lives—whether positive or negative. By taking back my autonomy, I discovered that I am the only person who has any say over the quality of life I lead/enjoy. I refuse to be anything other than the product of my choices. By making mindful choices that promote positivity in my own life, I find that I can impact the welfare others for the better as well. We all have this ability. All it takes is practice and vigilance. The more you make good choices for yourself, the quicker you’ll come to realize that life is what you make it. Whether it is the deciding the food you eat or the disposition you cultivate, it all begins with a single choice.
Keep making good choices!
-         Ryan

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