I’ve been musing on some of the concepts I’ve encountered regarding life paths and our choices and difficulties in life. One such concept is that we ‘choose’ our challenges or obstacles. Now I’ll agree that there are times when we can get in our own way so to speak, and it’s always important to examine ourselves for any possible self-sabotage, conscious or unconscious. Sometimes a block can be serving a deeper need of some sort, and if this can be brought into awareness and resolved it is possible to move forward. Also of course, our choices do have consequences, sometimes unintended ones, and maybe even years later. Accepting responsibility for our decisions makes it easier to accept potential consequences and also can empower us to deal with them. I also accept that within each one of us are particularly qualities and talents we have to potentially offer the world, and that finding a path we can take to achieve that gives meaning to life, although there are myriad ways to fulfil that. There may be times we feel we are ‘on the right path’. Everything flows and opportunities open to us. We feel that we belong. When we feel our life is on the right path it is because the choices and opportunities we take at that time are a good fit for our psyche and therefore we feel a sense of right fit or ‘destiny’.
However, personally I disagree with the maxim that we always choose our life circumstance. I’m sure that blaming is not the intention of those who hold these ideas, which are often shared to offer comfort or a sense of empowerment. However that is not necessarily the feeling triggered on the receiving end. Of the same ilk is the idea that things are ‘meant to be’ or ‘happen for a reason’. Underlying these is the same implication—that we deserve the hurts that happen to us—an insidious form of victim-blaming. To say that an abandoned infant, or a child in a war zone, an abused woman, cancer sufferer or murder victim ‘chose’ their situation would probably be a shocking statement to most people, but these extreme examples highlight the disturbing sentiment of such maxims. Ironically, suggesting that a person chose their situation can amplify a feeling of powerlessness. If the reality is that their current difficulty is caused by external factors beyond their control, and therefore they have limited power to resolve the situation, then the claim that they chose this implies that they ought to be able to fix it for themselves, leading to feelings of failure and inadequacy. Being told that we should be able to fix something that is beyond our power to fix creates even deeper feelings of being trapped and powerless.
I would like to undertake a reframing of these ideas, which I believe will conserve and enhance the self-empowerment and self-responsibility that is intended by proponents of these ideas, whilst removing the blame aspect. Rather than saying I chose or deserve a situation I like to take the attitude that nevertheless I can learn something valuable from it. This resonates with the perspective of Roberto Assagioli, the founder of psychosynthesis—that difficulties in life are opportunities for growth, encouraging a positive mindset without the negative feeling of self-blame.
The concept that ‘everything happens for a reason’ is related to ideas about destiny and predetermined paths in life. These are narratives that some people feel gives them a sense of purpose and meaning in life, and a sense of security. Personally it’s not a narrative that I find reassuring.
There is a difference between association and cause and effect. It’s a subtle but important distinction. We may learn something valuable from a difficult circumstance but that does not have to mean it was ‘meant to be’. In fact this thinking reverses the cause and effect; I learned something from this, ergo, it happened because I needed to learn it. What if reality is ‘it just happens’ and we make the best of it? This is not to dismiss that there are clearly times when we unconsciously re-create a situation in our social lives or relationships until we learn from it, often related to emotional wounds from childhood. But again, this doesn’t have to mean that the whole experience is occurring in order to create that learning, simply that we can’t move on from the experience until we learn the way out. Once out of it, we are hopefully wiser and stronger. But sometimes people are so damaged they can’t move on. Does this ‘happen for a reason’? It is always true that an individual can choose how they respond to a situation but sometimes their wounds prevent them from seeing or being able to act on all their choices, and sometimes their choices really are truly limited. The only choices then are how we look at a situation. I have been through a lot in my life. I don’t personally find it helpful to think that I ‘chose’ all that pain, or the pain I caused other people in trying to cope with it. But I damn well did choose to face it all and work through it and make the best of what I do have.
I choose to see the good in my life and in the world around me. I don’t deny the pain, but I don’t let it blind me. I don’t believe it ‘happened for a reason’ but I do believe I can choose a narrative of my own that helps me make sense of my life. Sometimes a painful experience can lead to a positive outcome you may not otherwise have had. Like the current in a river, a boulder can redirect the flow in a different direction. One door closes, but another one opens. Humans have an incredible capacity for hope and renewal. We can make good out of the bad. We can take our pain and remold it to make something good. We can choose our own narrative interpretation of experience. If ‘everything happens for a reason’ or ‘I chose this life’ works for you in your own life, that’s great, and I respect that, but please consider it may not be helpful for other people. The problem is not in having that for your own narrative, but in projecting it onto others. We can support each other to see what choices we do have, and to find our own sense of meaning and purpose. Empowerment means writing our own story.
©️Janey Colbourne 2017