You Never Really Had a Choice

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In the middle of a cerebral conversation with a dear friend, it occurred to me that we humans seem to believe that we have the capacity to make thoughtful and genuine choices for ourselves but that this notion is illusory.

Let’s say that someone is considering the pros and cons of two options. And for the sake of clarity and ease, let’s agree that the choice is between having a kale salad or having a pint of ice cream for dinner.

It is indisputable that the more healthful option would be to go with the vitamin-rich, high fiber salad over the nutrient-free, though delicious treat. Intellectually, we can all agree that one is, by way of nutrition, “better” than the other. But let’s add a condition: the person situated at the crossroads of “Salad Street” and “Ice Cream Avenue” has just suffered a loss, is in need of comfort, and believes that the one of the two will will physically soothe his/her pain. This added nuance changes that moment of perceived “choice.”

Everything thing that falls in the past will bear upon “choice,” meaning that every experience and every moment up to the moment the refrigerator door opens will determine which option is exercised. Perhaps there will be some consideration of “how will this make me feel in the future,” which is an acceptable contemplation. But even with a measured consideration for any residual aftermath, the more influential part leans toward the past. As creatures of habit, we often put aside the ability to thoroughly imagine the consequences of a present decision. We tend to do what feels “right” in the moment.

But what about this “feeling of right,” this nod toward a belief that what I am about to choose is mine to make?

I would argue that there really isn’t the ability to truly “choose,” as we were uniquely poised to rank salad over ice cream (or ice cream over salad) based on our past experiences. While we might, in any given moment, believe that we are “making a choice,” once a person comes to a place of exercising Option A over Option B, any belief that the “better” path was taken is a false belief as there was really only one viable path given everything that happened in a person’s life up to that moment.

Going back to the hypothetical, if I had already had ice cream for breakfast and lunch, I might be able to convince myself that the third meal of the day should be kale salad. However, were I to have had kale salad for breakfast and lunch, I might consider myself “deserving” of a reward for having been conscientious all day long.

Those two sets of “facts,” directly derived from my past experiences, will lead me to believe that I am making a “choice,” though I’m not, not really.

Let’s say that after having ice cream all day long, I regard myself as having “failed” in properly feeding my body so why not round out the day with my third pint of empty calories? Conversely, had I eaten only kale salad, I might be inclined to continue that trend for the remainder of the day.

But again, every moment up to that moment of “choice” is based on the illusion, perhaps even the delusion, that I’m in control of my destiny. I’m not. No one is because the mere act of acting upon Option A versus Option B is not driven by a real “choice;” it is controlled by every (illusory) “choice” each of us has made prior to that moment standing in the kitchen and debating those pros and cons of kale salad and ice cream.

Each of us has been trained in the cognitive dissonance of believing in free will, left to endorse the idea that we each are the masters of our own futures. But our connections to our pasts are what determine whether we choose Option A over Option B, which ultimately means that any “choice” is not truly or authentically made but rather the “next logical step” in the progression of our lives.

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