Owning Our Choices: We Are Not Entitled to the Lives We Didn’t Choose.
“I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”
~ Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
In the final scene of La La Land, Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling) plays a heartbreaking salute on the piano to the ghost ship of his life. The life he didn’t choose flashes before his eyes. It’s an idyllic life, the one where he achieves his dreams and ends up with his great love.
Sebastian will never know the magic that could have been his other life. None of us can. When we go in one direction, we are also choosing not to go in another. Our lives are defined as much by the choices that we make as the ones we don’t.
All choices have consequences, even the ones we don’t make.
In North American consumer culture, we seem to have forgotten that our choices have consequences. We are constantly surrounded by an abundance of options: not only can we buy barbecue chips, we can also buy ruffled, wavy, baked, or kettle-cooked; and in spicy, hot, chipotle, tangy, mesquite, hickory smoked, and sweet flavors (to name a few).
If you are lonely on a Friday night, all it takes is a couple of swipes on Tinder to find a range of prospective dates. As the world becomes more and more globalized, it is becoming easier for many of us (especially if we have Western white privilege) to travel and work abroad. This results in an endless list of possible career paths and destinations to add to our bucket lists.
Instead of being liberated by the many options available to us, many of us become paralyzed by choice. We are non-committal, sampling the various flavors without making a real decision to go one way or another.
As Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice, emphasizes, this culture of “overchoice” has detrimental outcomes, as it prevents us from contributing to society in a meaningful way. We fail to choose because we don’t want to feel the pain or regret that’s associated with making the wrong choice. But we aren’t helping society or ourselves by doing nothing.
We only need to look at the recent US election, where nearly half of all registered voters didn’t vote, to see the consequences of the choices that prospective voters didn’t make (read: Trump).
It’s important to “own” our choices.
Another consequence of indecision is that it prevents us from discovering the outcomes of our choices. Making a decision allows us to evaluate if we have made a bad decision, and then do something about it if necessary.
Instead of being non-committal, we need to own the choices that we make. This allows us to continue making subsequent choices: either to correct mistakes that we made, or continue in a similar direction.
In the last decade, I’ve worked as a teacher in three different countries and five different cities. Now that I’m back home, I’m feeling envious of friends who chose to stay in one place. As Facebook and Instagram constantly remind me, they now have stable careers, happy families, and financial security.
This has left me wondering: should I have stayed home too? Maybe then, I too would be where they are. Maybe I would have the job I’m seeking now. Maybe I’d have savings instead of debt. Maybe a man I loved wouldn’t have chosen someone else. Maybe I’d be happier. Maybe none of these things would have happened. Maybe all of them would have.
Importantly, though, the choices I have made have led me to who I am now.
I’ve trekked through expeditions in the Andes, Alaska, and the Arctic. I’ve learned to speak three languages. I’ve learned to understand and forgive myself more. I’ve met incredible friends all over the world. I can reconcile with the fact that I lived authentically, and made the decisions that I thought were right at the time with the information I had.
So any thoughts of regret or feelings of envy are connected to a sense of entitlement over the path I didn’t choose.
By “owning” my choices, I’m better able to appreciate that I chose a different path, the one that was more authentically me. Just because my life looks different than some of my friends’ right now, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its own unique value.
Warning: fear and unworthiness lead us astray.
There have definitely been a few occasions in my life where I’ve made decisions knowing that they were wrong for me. While I have tried to be self-compassionate (I’m human and make mistakes), I’ve realized that in these situations, my inability to make the right decision was blocked by one of two elements: fear or unworthiness.
Here’s one example:
When I was in university I didn’t try out for the basketball team. I went to the training camp, saw how competitive the tryouts were going to be, and decided that I probably wasn’t good enough to make the team. I spoke to the basketball coach after the training camp and he told me that he wasn’t sure if I would make it. He couldn’t say Yes or No. He would decide at tryouts.
But I never went to the tryouts. I was afraid of getting cut, so I didn’t go.
I chose to play rugby instead, which ended up being a great experience overall and connected me with an incredible group of lifelong friends who I still hang out with regularly. So everything worked out, and in many ways I feel grateful for the choice that I made. But there was always this nagging desire to play basketball.
I even spent the whole summer after first-year training to try out for the basketball team the next year. (I didn’t.)
In hindsight, it would have been much better for me if I would have tried out for the basketball team and let the coach decide whether or not I was good enough. At the end of the day, the person who put a value on my worth, the person who decided that I wasn’t good enough, was me.
My fear of getting cut had two negative consequences.
The first is that it prevented me from succeeding. I didn’t try so I didn’t make it.
The second is that it held me back from embracing the path that I’d chosen: rugby, whole-heartedly. I could have spent my summer after first year devoting myself to becoming a better rugby player, which would have been a more valuable contribution to the rugby team. But I didn’t. This taught me that when we fail to choose authentically, we don’t only hurt ourselves, we hurt the people around us as well.
Similar scenarios unfold all of the time in relationships.
Someone I loved very much told me that we couldn’t be together because he “wasn’t good enough for me.” This made me very sad because he was the person who decided he was not worthy of the relationship, not me.
It was very difficult for me to accept when I learned that he had chosen to be with someone else, because it made me wonder: Is he settling for less because he doesn’t feel like he is worthy of what he actually wants?
In the end, I realized that I can only control the choices that I make, and with time and tears (lots and lots of tears!), I worked on letting go, even though it was not what I wanted. While I chose him, I had to learn to accept that he didn’t choose me, whether or not I agreed with his justifications for not doing so.
Two important questions.
Back to Sebastian and La La Land.
When the life Sebastian didn’t choose flashes before his eyes, he doesn’t try to fight it or change it. He doesn’t act entitled to it. He accepts it with tragic grace.
Sebastian made a choice to follow his dreams, and he pursued that path with everything he had. He made a commitment to live authentically, and didn’t hold himself back due to fear of failure or regret or a sense of unworthiness. He went all in, and embraced his choice wholeheartedly.
The choices we make will define our life, as well as the many versions of the lives we don’t have. So when we make choices, we need to be prepared to salute those ghost ships from the shore as they pass us by. This means being able to ask ourselves two important questions: Can I accept the choices I’ve made? Am I living the life I imagined?
Since we can’t predict the future, we will never know the outcomes of our choices before we make them. Being able to answer “Yes” to these two questions is the best that any of us can hope for.
The only life to which we are entitled is the one we are living right now, so we may as well choose the life we want to be living.
Shannon Mullen is a high school teacher and writer based in Toronto, Canada. She has previously taught in the United Kingdom, the Canadian Arctic, and Colombia. Her writing has appeared in the Globe & Mail and Elephant Journal. Shannon blogs about lessons learned through teaching and travel at her website.