“Fate doesn’t hang on a wrong or right choice” – Neil Hannon
I heard this quote from the song “Songs of Love” over the weekend and immediately began thinking about the idea of “wrong” and “right” choices as well as the idea of fate. One of the dictionary definitions of fate is “the universal principle or ultimate agency by which the order of things is presumably prescribed; the decreed cause of events; time.” This definition and others like it suggest that your lot in life is pre-determined. Given that definition, one interpretation of the quote could be that the choices we think we’re making are not choices at all.
I’m not sure that everything is predetermined. But, I also have been thinking a lot lately about our obsession with binary thinking – right or wrong, black or white, good or bad, masculine or feminine, etc. I don’t think this world is two-dimensional. I think there are severe limitations in binary systems that are designed to make life more comprehensible for us. It may be easier mentally to put things in either one category or another, but much of life is inherently more complicated than dualistic thinking suggests.
The idea of wrong or right choices feels quite integral to our society. It’s the fabric of ethics, religion, legislation. We consciously and unconsciously remind ourselves constantly of this paradigm: when we talk about mistakes or bad decisions, or that we obviously made the right choice when we chose our job, our spouse, our restaurant entrée. We talk about it to our children, when we say that hitting your brother is a choice with potentially painful consequences while being nice to your brother is a choice with a higher likelihood of positive consequences.
Perhaps there is no wrong or right choice. Not because fate has it all figured out, but rather because every choice we make, when we make it, is the result of us using the resources we have at the given moment. When you strip away meaning and pain and consequences, it’s simply a choice.
To go a step further, perhaps even the concept of whether we make an active choice or whether things happen to us beyond our control is also limiting. Because every choice we make leads us to a constellation of other events, people, situations, circumstances that can’t necessarily be de-coupled from the other things that were decided by others or even nature, perhaps stuff that happens, whether or not we are directly responsible for it or not, is simply stuff that happens?
Perhaps the consequences for the things that we decide and things that we don’t decide aren’t that different. I’m not suggesting that we should let people off the hook for things like, murder, for instance. Fundamentally, however, whether you’ve murdered, or you loved someone who was murdered – the consequence is pain on either side. Each person gets to choose how they address (or don’t address) that pain.
In both cases, individuals are left to decide how they want to make meaning of the choice that was made. The person who lost their loved one might choose to become an advocate, take their own life, write about their pain, seek counseling, join a support group, create a foundation, develop an addiction, or delve into the criminal justice system. The person who murdered can accept responsibility for the pain they’ve caused, commit another crime, surrender to the consequences and or punishment, see themselves as a criminal for the rest of their lives or see themselves as worthy of rehabilitation.
While murder is an extreme example, I’m betting you can think of a mistake or a bad choice you made. Maybe it’s something you have a hard time forgiving yourself about. Maybe you have never stopped beating yourself up because of it. At this point, you have no choice or control about what already happened. You made that choice using whatever resources you had at the time.
More importantly, you are empowered, right now, to create meaning from that choice. You can choose to create meaning that is useful or not. You can choose to reframe what you’ve always told yourself or what others have told you. You can choose to see some hidden gifts in the choice you made. You can choose to forgive yourself, and even to forgive the people who don’t ever want to forgive you. If you’ve never dealt with the pain that this choice caused, you can choose to address this pain. Pain that’s unaddressed transmutes into unnecessary and prolonged suffering. Pain that is explored transmutes into healing, of yourself and others.