I recently watched a space opera — Babylon 5 — where one of the characters made a proverbial deal with the devil. Bad choice after bad choice sent him down a path that would soon turn him into an intergalactic version of Hitler.
While this character was making choices that brought the universe closer to disaster, he kept on telling himself that he had no choice. And the further he strayed from the path of integrity, the more he lost his soul.
It was excruciatingly painful to watch. More than once, I shouted at the screen: “He’s lying to himself!”
As one TV critic so succinctly put it:
“I didn’t have a choice.” I think the only times that line is ever uttered on television is when the character actually does have a choice, and they’re doing the wrong thing."
When I read this, I felt vindicated in my argument with the unresponsive TV screen: “See? I was right after all!”
The Danger of Telling Ourselves We Don’t Have a Choice
My frustration with the “intergalactic Hitler in the making” character had a deeper cause: this pattern doesn’t just exist on TV. It exists all around and within us.
Of course, in real life, bad choices generally don’t lead to all-out disasters for the world — but they often result in people losing contact with their soul. They tend to make the world a slightly duller, somewhat worse place.
That’s why I want to bang my head against the wall when people deny they have a choice… and then proceed to make the wrong one. It’s like they know deep down that they’re doing the wrong thing and the only reason they can do it anyway is that they lie to themselves about the choice they have in the matter.
When someone does this, it seems to upset me more than most other people. Perhaps that’s because I’m German and our entire education system is geared towards making sure Auschwitz will never happen again. This necessarily entails teaching people early on that they do have a choice.
Granted, in real life, “I don’t have a choice” is most often used in self-destructive ways and doesn’t endanger the world. At the same time, the lack of agency implied by these words is in some ways similar to the “I was just following orders” — Nuremberg excuse.
People making the wrong choice even if they’re only hurting themselves upsets me so much because it reminds me that that’s the risk of being human. If we have some level of agency in life as opposed to assuming everything is fate, then it follows that we can make the wrong choice.
The danger of making the wrong choice is the price we pay for having some element of agency in life — and I desperately want to make sure I use whatever choice I have in the “right” way.
Why We Actually Don’t Have a Choice
I often see the “I don’t have a choice”-pattern in people who are unhappy with their chosen profession and feel a strong calling to do something else. Because we often fear the things we want the most, people then find themselves in a conflict between their desire and their fear.
For the lucky ones, their desire wins out and they make the change they long for. Others listen to their fear and find reason upon reason — a more expensive car, a new mortgage, an exclusive private school for the kids — to maintain the status quo. This is often accompanied by a side dish of “I don’t have a choice.”
But what if these people are actually right? What if we don’t have a choice?
Despite all this talk about choices, when we look deep into our soul, we might find that we actually don’t have a choice. We must do the right thing. We must do what is in integrity for us.
I experienced this myself. I left a legal career I had spent a decade building to move to another continent to be with the love of my life and pursue my passion. It was a battle between my desire (the life I wanted to have) and my fear (what I had to give up to get there).
You could argue that I had a choice in this situation. I could have decided not to do it. But to not make this choice, I would have had to go against my soul itself. And that wasn’t acceptable to me.
You do have a choice. But often, in these situations, one of the choices is tantamount to committing treason against your soul — and the other choice is the one that feels in integrity to you.
The Only Times We Don’t Have a Choice
When someone is saying “I don’t have a choice,” they’re denying the fundamental agency that comes with being human. The reality is that we almost always have a choice.
The only times in my entire life when I didn’t have a choice was when my body refused to cooperate. For instance, over a decade ago I was walking in a park in the dark when a biker snatched a woman’s purse. Having just left my martial arts class and carrying sticks on me, my past self wanted to chase after the biker and try to get the purse back but my body just… froze.
This “freeze” response is one of the natural bodily responses to danger (alongside “fight” and “flight) and it is an automatic reaction that can’t be controlled. This was the first time I experienced a “freeze” response and it was the strangest thing in the world.
For a few moments, I was unable to move, despite how much I wanted to. It was like being put under a full body-bind spell like in a Harry Potter book. When the spell broke, I rushed to the woman, made sure she was okay, and gave her my phone to call the police.
In that situation, I didn’t have a choice. Or rather, I had made my conscious choice but my body refused to cooperate with it. I can’t even fault this automatic response mechanism for deciding that the risk wasn’t worth it. My hope is that if the situation had been worse — if the person’s health or life had been in danger— that my body would have let me move and do something about it.
What this experience taught me is that the only times we don’t have a choice is when our body goes into automatic programming and doesn’t cooperate with our conscious decisions — or when we’re in a non-conscious state.
How to Move Beyond the Lie That We Don’t Have a Choice
There’s a reason that we tend to tell ourselves we have less agency in a situation than we truly have. That reason is fear.
If people admit that they have a choice, they also have to admit that they are in a battle between their soul’s desire and their fear. And once you admit that, it’s easy to see that there’s only one right choice in the matter — following the path that your soul dictates.
The lie — “I don’t have a choice” — is the only thing that’s keeping us from having to confront that fear… and that’s why we hold on to it with the same amount of desperation with which a drowning person clings on to a lifesaver.
If you’re holding on to the lie, realize that it’s not a lifesaver… it’s an anchor dragging you down.
When you’re in that place, you must call bullsh*t on the lie. Confront your fear. Be brave. It might be the hardest thing you ever have to do — but trust me, you don’t want to commit treason against your own soul.
As a powerful seer put it in the show Babylon 5:
“We say there is no choice only to comfort ourselves when the decision has already been made. If you understand that, there is hope.”
You have a choice, you’re just afraid to make the right one. As soon as you realize that, there’s hope.
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