Choice and Creating a Better World
We make the choice to be who we want and create the world we want to see.
Every day we make a choice to be who we want to be. Depending on a multitude of factors, our coping skills, our mental states, our level of privilege, and so many others, these choices can be made on a whim or with serious, scraping-the-metal effort. But, there is a choice. When speaking of his analysis of the behavior of those imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps, Victor Frankl, insightful psychiatrist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning himself a prisoner of Auschwitz, observes,
"Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his dignity even in a concentration camp.”
Frankl argues that a person determines who they are and can become even under the direst circumstances. Because of this, real freedom lies not in the external choices we encounter, but the internal choices to be the person and create the change we want and need.
During the few months I spent working with the teens in the juvenile hall, the idea of choice was a huge topic. Whether they had a choice or didn’t. Whether they would or would not make the same choice again—the one that got them there in the first place. Whether they would make similar or different choices when they got out. It was all about choices. Sometimes my co-facilitator and I would leave the discussion feeling a mixture of frustration and hopefullness that the young men were so close to acknowledging their power to change by holding themselves accountable to the choices they could and can make to be different every day.
My brother and I were having an argument about choices just today. He prefers to have choices from different types of health insurance to brands of cookies. Even if this choice is an illusion—like a handful of companies control or own everything we buy. Whereas, I don’t need these kinds of choices. I’d be happy with one type of health insurance or a single brand of cookies. These arbitrary choices don’t lead to any amount of real freedom, but my brother disagrees. These choices are precisely what freedom means to him. In reality, this argument was more about control than choices. But, control, as we’ve seen with how our world of comfort and privilege has been upturned by COVID-19, is also an illusion.
The only control we have, the only choices we can make is over and for ourselves. In librarian and activist Stacy Russo’s inspiring anthology A Better World Starts Here: Activists and Their Work, I’ve been obsessed with the two epigraphs that open the text. The first is from writer-activist Grace Lee Boggs, “We have the power within us to create the world anew,” that is followed by poet-activist June Jordan, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Behind choice there is power, and, often, privilege. It’s impossible to disconnect these terms from the other. The greatest freedom, then, is how we choose to see the world. It’s the whole glass half-empty, glass half-full argument. More contemporarily, it’s having a growth versus a fixed mindset. Frankl, Russo, Boggs and Jordan have chosen to find hope amidst the uncontrollable and sometimes terrible world. To fight the good fight with their voices and words and art.
Each of us have the power to “retain [our] dignity” to “create the world anew.” We don’t have to wait for the right person to come along. We’ve been here waiting all along to make that choice and hold ourselves accountable for the world we want to see. And, it’s a hard choice to say, “I’m not going to wait around for someone to step up any longer,” but it’s the necessary choice as we face countless injustice. Everyday make the kind choice, the hard choice, the caring choice, the responsible choice, the people-first choice, the community choice, the hopeful choice. Because choosing not to do anything at all is also a choice. One you’ll have to live with every day.