Making Choices

Freely Choosing Your Life Experiences
within the Realities of Your Inner and Outer Worlds

Robert Caldwell

Henry Sloane Coffin, a pre-eminent churchman at the turn of the century (and grandfather of the peace activist William Sloane Coffin) was riding his horse side by side with the powerful minister of one of the nation's most prominent churches, an advocate of predestination. With pride and confidence he said, "Henry, it was ordained before the beginning of time that you would be our speaker for our centennial celebration today." Coffin, who had dedicated his career to trumpeting individual responsibility and free choice replied, "Are your sure?" "Most certainly!" came the quick reply. "Well, if that's so, then I won't." And Coffin immediately turned his horse around and went home.

Fundamental in our self-concept and attitude is the assumption that we can choose our environments, our experiences, our actions. From the Bill of Rights to Sinatra's My Way, we create guidelines and celebrations of the individual's entitlement to free choice. Humankind is distinguished from other species by its breadth of choices. Our political maneuverings, our development of mental and artistic capacities, our commitments to better health are all ways we attempt to gain more control in the choices we make. "Give me liberty or give me death" is not only a singular expression of human courage, but a simple statement of the reality of being, for not to be free to choose is to be "dead" to the variety of stimulations and behaviors that make life worth living.


The worst thing that can happen to us physically, mentally and emotionally is to lose our freedom--to run out of choices. It is no happenstance that one of the most poignant novels of our generation includes the word: "choice"--Sophie's Choice. Sophie is given the emotionally intolerable "choice" by a Nazi physician to decide which of her two children should live or die. She makes the decision, as she must if she is to save the life of even one of her children; ultimately, in inconsolable remorse, she takes her own life.

Though our choices are not so elemental or dramatic as Sophie's, we nevertheless often feel we are tyrannized by necessity and have no viable or enlivening options available to us. Here are some of the examples of dead-ends persons confront:

Career. Marie (Names and identifying data have been changed.) languishes in her job as a lawyer in a government agency. A single mother, the flex-time policy enables her both to earn an adequate living to satisfy her lifestyle and be with her infant daughter at the most needful moments. Though she is bored and finds no personal reward in her work, she "has no choice" but to continue.

Relationship. Howard and Anne have finished college, and after the tortures and ecstasies of years of courtship--including coming to an acceptance of Anne's heart condition which could mean permanent limited mobility--they set a wedding date. In the meantime, Howard, away for an extended business training program, falls in love with a colleague. Howard imagines that if he does not go through with the wedding, Anne will never marry anyone. Though his heart is with his new love, as duty and faithfulness were bred into his being along with the alphabet, he feels he has "no choice" but to make a marriage he foresees as a lifetime cross to bear.

Family. Katherine, when she was a child, at the direction of her widowed father, visited her elderly aunt as a matter of course every Sunday afternoon. From her training Katherine surmised that Sunday afternoons were for family visiting. For the whole of her married life, she dutifully took her husband to see her sister and aunt every Sunday afternoon. She had "no choice." (Doubtless, the sister and aunt were possessed of complementary "no choice" expectations.)

Politics. Edward was of the eighth generation of Southern Democrats. During his studies toward an MBA he began to think that Republican fiscal theory was at least worth considering. Mentioning his explorations at a family gathering, he induced a storm of criticism from his seniors. He found justification for remaining an "enthusiastic" Democrat indefinitely. He was sure he had "no choice."

Philosophy. In Stardust Memories, one of Woody Allen's existentialist films, he is trapped inside a train filled with dour, depressed, silent, foreboding men and women. He peers through the window to the club car of the train parked alongside of him. There, glamorous and festive people are exuberantly partying and toasting one another in high good will. Allen wonders why he is on his train of depressed souls and not the other, but he is literally locked-in and has "no choice" but to be where he is.

So many times we are confronted by the "no choice" dead-end, that we may indeed come to perceive of ourselves as being without a viable choice, of having every observable option either doing nothing for us or making things worse--like the rope around a torture victim when his hands are linked to his neck and every effort to free himself only tightens the stranglehold. Clearly, being without choices threatens our self-definition, our existence itself.


One of the central reasons that the issue of choice is so difficult for us is that we are so often unrealistic about the scope and power of the choices we actually have. We are as much defined by our limits as by our powers. As groundwork for preparing to make more effective choices, I believe it can be helpful to begin with a brief and direct survey of some of the ways our choices are limited:

...By Biology. Studies of identical twins raised apart demonstrate what direct observation has inferred all along--that persons reflect the styles and values of their families even when they have no contact with them. Though the nature/nurture debates persists, there is increasing evidence that we are much more determined than we like to think by what is transmitted in DNA.

...By the External World. If we wish to eat we will work, steal, beg, get lucky or be given to by the beneficence of others. These are the choices. There are so many demands coming into us simply by the fact that we are present on this planet: the bank, the landlord, the law, the plumbing, the car, the judgments of our friends and enemies, the needs of our parents and children. There are so many expectations to be met, and even when we attempt to meet some need of our own, we often discover a new set of demands.

...By the Learnings of Childhood. A middle-age woman told a counselor this story: When she was five years old, she was exploring inquisitively her mother's bedroom and she came upon a set of false teeth. Having heard somewhere of such an unusual thing, she turned brightly to her mother and said, "Mommie, are these your false teeth?" The mother did, indeed, wear dentures, but out of what must have been acute embarassment at being "found-out", she replied, "No, I don't have false teeth." The storyteller vividly remembered the moments following: She looked back at the teeth as she dealt with the very troubling decision of how to hold on to her mother's approval and yet honor her own perception. Being a young, dependent child, she settled for the inevitable and said to herself, "Oh, these must not be false teeth." Established in her at that moment was what was to become a pattern of not believing in her own experience, thus handicapping her ability to make self-confident choices.

The messages, overt and covert, given to us by our families and other caregivers remain with us through life and constrict our possibilities for making choices. They have established something like a hypnotic field of commands and guidance systems that cause us to believe we cannot do other than that which we have been taught.


In order to deal with the inevitable choices that face us every day, we have created many different programs and rules, ingenious and plain, demonic and saintly. There are half-choices as when one doesn't want to go to a party, so he shows up an hour late. There are substitute choices, as when one can't win the man of her dreams, so she marries "rich" to "show him." There are blaming choices, as when one accuses others of blocking him of what he would otherwise have attained. There are fantasy choices, as when one makes her decisions according to her idealized wishes rather than the reality of her circumstances. There are victim choices, as when one lays the blame for his unhappiness on another. And, there are empowered choices when one looks not at what she ought to do, wishes to do, or regrets not doing--but to what she wants to do from within a sense of her whole self.


Freedom to choose is a great ideal and hope, but a state of being and achievement often elusive. However, it is possible. There are four steps which I consider essential to develop a life wherein we live by our own creative choices:

Know What You Want. Half a lifetime ago, before I was a psychotherapist, I was a minister. In the midst of prolonged struggle about the suitability of that role for me, one day, in an unusual state of clarity, I asked myself, "What am I doing in my work that I truly like?" I searched my mind and found two things: I received powerful satisfactions from being with people at critical times in their lives--birth, death, marriage, personal crisis; and I was stimulated in leading small group discussion around psychological themes. Soon a new awareness crept over me--I was spending less than ten percent of my working time doing what I liked. If I were to live with less stress and more purposefulness, I would have to make some serious adjustments in my profession. Out of the insight that I was not doing what my inner self wanted, and with a lot of work in the transition, I eventually came to a new vocation in which the majority of my time I was able to do what I liked most--working in depth with individuals and groups. Society calls it "psychotherapy;" for me, it's a structure for responding to my mind's deeper necessity.

Becoming aware of and claiming what we truly want takes us deep within.. "Wants" scare us, and some of us are almost phobic at the possibility of acknowledging them. They may be "too many," or "too earthy," or "too unacceptable," or "too selfish," or "too difficult" even to consider. In leading couples workshops, I find one of the most difficult exercises for partners is to ask them to exchange a list of "wants" with one another. Often, couples would rather divorce than expose to each other their honest desires.

Jack Kornfield suggests there are three steps in Buddhist psychology for attending to the more profound dimensions of our minds. First we tell our story, giving the external rendition of our experience; second, we may move into expressing the feelings that are within the story; third, if we remain in contact with our inner self we will come to the fears that confront us. To this schema, I would add a fourth, the realm of "wants"--that core part of the self where we know and express who we are, what we need, what we must have if we are to be whole. We cannot make choices that matter for us unless they are choices that satisfy the "wants" of this essential self.


One of the most outrageously misleading promises often made within the humanistic movement is "We can do anything we wish." We can't, of course. But learning to discern what is possible and to be willing to accept the "possible" as our path demands a development of awareness of our real, not imagined, capacities, even though they may be considerably less impressive than what we might have wanted to think.

A few moments of looking straight at ourselves is sufficient to dismiss such obviously unavailable choices as those beyond our mental or physical capacities--we can't lift an elephant, compose like Mozart, or punch out George Foreman. However, most of the choices we face day-by-day are not so emphatically impossible. In our actual and ordinary lives many of our habits and established patterns, for all practical purposes, make it "impossible" to choose alternatives.

In Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Spielberg's magical film blend of human and cartoon characters, Roger is in serious trouble as he is hunted by an evil monster who has the power to kill "Toons" by melting them down in acid. Roger, knowing that his nemesis is in the next room, tries to remain quiet so as not to be discovered. He is succeeding till his pursuer uses the ultimate weapon, one that a "Toon" cannot resists. He taps out "Shave-and-a-hair-cut!" and Roger can no longer restrain himself; he begins dancing with the gusto that is his nature as an comic entertainer.

Even as Roger Rabbit has no control over his actions once he hears a particular rhythmic pattern, so also do we have no control under certain conditions. Though ordinary reasonable thinking might declare we live in a world replete with choices, actual experience indicate we have fewer choices than we like to believe. a serious weight-watcher knows that with Haagen Dazs around, he will eat it; good students know that if they associate with other "A" students their grades will stay up; police know that if persons have guns, they will use them.

We do not suddenly and magically make ourselves into new and unfamiliar beings. Life is so constructed that experiences move from this moment to the next, from this space/time in an uninterrupted stream. The future experience is next to the present one and is created out of the present one. There is no escaping this. We bring all that we have ever been--felt, thought, seen, heard, imagined--to the experience of this moment as we move from the "here" into the "there." The only real choices we have are those about the next possible thing.

You may wish to get married, but so far, no luck. As marriage is dependent on environmental co-operation, you cannot simply choose to marry. But you may be able to bring yourself to do some things novel for you--e.g., singles-programs, video-dating, inviting friends to matchmake, intentionally pushing through your shyness. You will have then discovered empowered choice.... You may not be able to visit your parents for the obligatory summer vacation without feeling like a pained and frustrated fifteen-year-old. But you may be able to shorten your stay two days, take along some of your more pressing work, and keep your mate by your side in all "close" conversations--thus remaining at least partially connected with your adult self. You will have then discovered empowered choice.

Sometimes my desk piles so high with the clutter of unfinished business that I don't have room to lay my glasses and, feeling so overwhelmed, hardly want to see anyway. Over the years I have learned I do have an option for coping that works. I sit upright at my desk, check for vital signs, take a deep breath, and like an "MC" putting his hand into a raffle box, randomly choose an item and follow its demand through to completion. I repeat this process until the desk is clean. I have no more than begun the first task than I feel a great inner whoosh of relief and energy. I am, finally, doing what needs to be done. I have unclogged the logjam. I am doing the next thing. In this focused state of mind I do not have to deal with all the complexities and pitfalls at once, but take only a step at a time to finish what I can.


Mindfulness is the ground out of which freedom of choice emerges as figure. Mindfulness has many names: "awareness," "paying attention," "listening to the inner-self," "being centered," "being in-touch," "living in the spirit," knowing where it's at." Mindfulness is the sixth sense, bringing the other five into heightened perception and integration. Mindfulness is not judgmental; it knows no "oughts;" it has intense interest in life itself.

Mindfulness is manifest in: ...the star quarterback who sees three receivers down the field when his backup would have seen one. ...the master artist who sees dozens of variations in a shade of green when a novice would detect only a few. ...the undaunted adventurer who can think of several more 'great' restaurants when his preference for the evening is closed and his companion has become depressed by this single disappointment. ...the person who is appreciative of whatever life offers, knowing that each new moment brings new data about one's self in the world, new stimulations for the senses, new possibilities for our perceiving and expressing ourselves as wonders and energies of past, present, and future.

In the life-process of practicing mindfulness we discover that we are better able to know our options and more successfully able to confront and experience our actual choices. Out of mindfulness we come to know what we want, what is possible, and the sensitivity to be aware of whether or not we are in a state of positive energy. For mindfulness is nature's own bio-feedback system, letting us monitor the ups and down or our experience--and, as in bio-feedback, the awareness itself becomes healing.


Trusting our organism--our actual (not ideal) body/mind experience--is the active commitment we can make to living-out our mindfulness. Such trust is the experience-based belief that our organism, this remarkable creation of cosmic mind and biological evolution is already moving in the stream of its own potential. Our task is to keep its path clear. From this perspective are terms such as "self-fulfillment," "self-regulation," and "self-actualization" born.

Trusting our organism means that our sense of the choices we have comes from within. Choices arise not as something we "should" do, or even that which is "intelligent" to do, but as an expressive possibility of the self. Honest choices of the self are not from the outside-in ("You should." "Reason dictates that...") but from the inside-out ("The inner voice." "The felt-sense.") In our moments of high mindfulness and trust our whole being is resonating to the interplay of the rhythms between self and environment. The line between choosing and being chosen, between initiating and being led becomes softer. For the person who is most profoundly paying attention to self and world, the tensions of choice are greatly lessened and are replaced by a yielding to and cooperating with the processes of life. Coming and going, laughing and crying, negotiating one's will and yielding to another's will becomes a function of knowing one's visions and following one's promptings.

Our organism is always attempting to bring our self back into balance with the ongoing flow of life. It is as though we were riding a canoe down-river. If we hit some rock here, or a rush of turbulent water there, our business is to stay aware of the pressure on our boat and body and to make the counter-balancing moves. With a developed level of competence we can have a long enjoyable and safe journey. Without it, we may indeed, go under.

When I was a kid, a trip to the doctor too often meant "getting a shot," and that was one very unhappy childhood activity. Until a few years ago "shots" continued to be a special pain. In the course of my new learnings, I began to hear about the crucial importance of that most omnipresent sign of life--breathing. I learned that kids yell on roller coasters to release their energy and relax the constriction of their bodies brought by fear. I borrowed this idea for shot-taking. I began to let out a full (relatively silent) exhale as the nurse pricked my skin. I haven't had a bad inoculation since. I had discovered a simple way (remembering to breathe) to trust my organism to help it recover its natural flow which had been interrupted by the threat of the needle to which my body had tensed, unwittingly compounding my pain.


Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being writes that, in a given situation, we can make only one decision; so we never know whether our second of third choice would have been any better than our first. There is no second guessing. Each choice, because it is final, because it cannot be erased, because it creates the unique moment and occasion for the next choice, is a declarative statement of the self and an act of hope, despair, or indifference about the possibilities, the consequences, the karma of what will follow.

In a profound sense there are no "right" and "wrong" choices, but only actions which advance us toward further experiences. Each choice is like a bar of music in the self-composed symphony that is our life--and the bar may be well or poorly formed. The well-composed parts may be thought of as those which come out of awareness of what has gone before, knowledge of the notes and phrasing available in our individual repertory, and sensitivity to how the audience will hear and respond to our expression. The poorly composed may be disjointed, disharmonious, manifest little sense of awareness of the whole, and evidence only fragments of our potential.

We choose raggedly and resentfully, going from dissonant to entangled to aborted experiences, or we choose with the native energies of our being, balancing them with the learned patterns of mind and the demands of the world. But, always we choose. Where our choosing come from is what matters for the quality of our lives.

In the final scene of Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt, George Babbitt, the archetype for the self-absorbed, success-obsessed, American money-hustler speaks (His has been an empty lifetime--the best that could be said for him is that he had leaned how not to live.) supportingly to his son. Babbitt backs him in making a marriage that everyone, except himself, is opposed to and in choosing a career as a mechanic rather than going to college. His comment offers a succinct expression of a life with no real choices: "I've never done a single thing I wanted to in my whole life." Following that sad self-commentary, Lewis gives Babbitt a self-redeeming word as he puts forward his confidence in his son's abilities to make self-respecting and courageous choices on his own: "I get a kind of sneaking pleasure out of the fact that you knew what you wanted to do and did it...don't be scared of the family. No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself...Go ahead. The world is yours!"

Such is the path and the power of choice-making from the inner-self--from knowing what you want, trusting yourself and your life process, moving through fear, and doing the next thing all the way.

Robert Caldwell, M. Div, C.P.C. has a private practice in Individual, Couple, and Group Psychotherapy in Bethesda, MD. He can be reached at 301-652-6180.