Last week I had the opportunity to feed some of the homeless people of Salt Lake City. I was surprised to find there were so many people who came into the shelter who did not, well, look like homeless people. It made me wonder about their circumstances, about their motivation. I questioned myself: at what point would I start coming to a soup kitchen for support? I think it would be well before I lost my home. If I was in a situation where I only had enough money to pay rent and wash my clothes, I would absolutely depend on a soup kitchen for all the meals possible.
It reminded me of an episode of Hoarders I watched once. This particular hoarder was more mentally detached from reality than your average hoarder, and his yard was stocked high with tires, pieces of cars, plywood planks, and every imaginable kind of junk. It looked like the city dump. The cleaners came in and discovered a homeless man living in a shack he’d made out of the material he found in the yard – and the hoarder was completely unaware of it. The homeless man had a blanket on the floor of the shack and a bucket in the corner that functioned as his toilet. Matt Paxton, one of the cleaning and organizing experts on the show echoed this vital truth: “I guess we’re all four or five bad decisions away from [pooping] in a bucket.”
Amen to that. Certainly there are bad circumstances that can befall a person, but the thing that I sincerely believe, through both personal experience and vicarious study, is that no matter what happens to you, nothing and no one can ever take away your ability to choose.
I know there are a lot of people who want to argue with that. But I bet that there is a chord somewhere in your heart that got struck. Because truth is truth no matter whether you believe it or not.
The vital thing to understand is the vast, extensive difference between “cannot” and “will not.”
When people come to me with their problems, I almost always return to them with words of advice or ideas to circumvent the issue. I am a problem solver. I am getting better at words and feelings of sympathy, but most of the time, those will still be accompanied by some advice.
Now, I know that 90% of the time, especially with women, when I’m being complained to, the person just wants to complain and doesn’t want answers, probably because they’ve already thought through everything I’m about to say to them and have already decided they aren’t going to do any of it. But nothing is more obnoxious, heart-breaking, or infuriating than when there is a clear solution that a person “cannot” do, when in full reality, they actually “will not” do it. Most of the time it’s because of extraneous things, like someone not being willing to give up their cable subscription, or go on vacation because they have small children. Of course, there are very good reasons not to do these things. I do this, too, obviously. There are many things in my life I don’t know how to let go of in order to accomplish other things. But the point is, you can do any thing you want if you are willing to take responsibility of your choice and the consequences.
This is something I think about a lot: one’s everlasting agency and how pristinely it sits inside our minds, waiting to be used, never diminished, never wrenched away from us.
What about extreme circumstances? What about tyrannical governments? What about murderers and rapists? What about societal conditioning? What about the lack of education?
In these situations, I would turn to Viktor Frankl, survivor of many of these, and more unfortunate circumstances in Auschwitz. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he comes to this very conclusion:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Coming from a man who actually did have everything taken from him, except his agency…well, you could choose to argue with him, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Unless you’ve been through worse than him, then by all means, educate me.
In my religion we believe that before the earth was created, we lived with God as his spirit children. He set forth a plan by which we could receive bodies and thereby grow to be more like God himself, but in order to do that we’d have to choose to follow certain laws God set. Satan wanted to change God’s plan by forcing everyone to comply with God’s laws, so that no soul would be lost, but also no soul would be able to choose. Because of Satan’s opposition, there was a war in heaven, where every single person who has come or will come to the earth fought to retain their freedom of choice. (Satan lost, P.S.)
Whether or not you believe that is true, isn’t that what all human beings are striving for? Isn’t that why we attempt to liberate countries where evil rulers have limited the freedom of choice? Isn’t that why every revolution ever has been fought? Isn’t that the spark of hope that we love to see in every protagonist’s eye in all beloved stories?
The freedom to choose is the most precious thing we have. It is the only thing we have. Why don’t we use it more wisely?
These are just some thoughts I’m throwing out there. It’ll come up again as a huge theme in my transcendental musings. I’m just getting your gears moving…