Monday, September 19, 2011

to be or not to be: making choices

Hamlet is our most infamous ambassador of indecisiveness. In his utter non-agency, others begin to question his sanity as he begins to lose his grip on reality... or at least his ability to direct his own reality. Hamlet does indeed act, but because he does so without forethought and without the conscious decision-making, he acts when pushed against a wall because of emotions, reactions, or threats against his own life. In short, he acts based on impulse rather than thought. Rather than deciding to stand up and reveal the truth of his father's death, he attempts to trick others into revealing their guilt. Hamlet is far too clever for his own good. In devising what he thinks is a brilliant way to draw the truth out of Claudius, he merely avoids making his own choice and confronting the matter head on. One could argue that his self-hatred, with its need for an outlet, finally comes crashing down on poor innocent Ophelia. The people who love us the most are the easiest targets for our anger and discontent (even if it is with the self that we are disappointed.) Hamlet demeans and disrespects his once-lover and takes his cruelty to the point of destroying Ophelia. Her death is ruled an accident, though, and Hamlet never has to bear the consequences for his role in the matter. Even with his more direct role in the murder of Polonius, Hamlet rages, "...but Heaven hath pleased it so, / To punish me with this..." (3.4.174-75)

In his article "Hamlet's 'Too, Too Solid Flesh," R. Chris Hassel, Jr. posits that Hamlet's indecision stems from his "paralyzing desire for perfect knowing and perfect doing" (Hassel, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 25, no. 3, Autumn, 1994) -- a requirement for action that impedes all action through its obvious impossibility. One cannot have 'perfect knowledge' in order to enact the 'perfect action'. Hamlet cannot come to terms with imperfection, perhaps because his choice may then be the 'wrong' one... and so he never chooses anything at all. Indeed, Hamlet cannot even decide to commit suicide, the most selfish of acts, because he cannot accurately predict what will come thereafter... and whether it might be worse. Hamlet is frozen in his self-absorption with his own perfection. This leads to his indecisiveness and thereby this hubris may be more precisely his tragic flaw.

In his oft-repeated 'To be or not to be' soliloquy, Hamlet argues that "conscience does makes cowards of us all." Our conscience, our inner sense of right and wrong, our personal morality so to speak, is a poor guide according to Hamlet. Why? Because we fear that which we do not know and thereby cannot make a choice which involves the unknown. But, Hamlet incorrectly applies this statement to all humans and further asserts that over-thinking clouds the ability to decide based on unpredictable consequences ("the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought"). Hamlet cannot decide because he does not feel confident he can predict the consequences... or that they will be positive consequences. Yet, the irony of this paralysis is that he thereby is forced into direr unintended consequences of his non-action or his reckless impulsiveness.

Most of us are not as indecisive as Hamlet. Most of us are aware that decisions must be made, even imperfectly, to the best of our ability and knowledge. Most of us have some sense that, as Shakespeare said, "action is eloquence" and that inaction only leads to tragic endings and a sort of self-absorbed non-existence. Yet, the question remains. How do we make difficult choices? Do we use our conscience, 'go by our gut' as some would say?

It would be so convenient if we could 'see all' before acting. In Norman Mailer's Castle in the Forest, D.T. explains how: "Spirits like myself can attend events where they are not present." (Mailer, Castle in the Forest, 2007, p. 78) Yet, D.T. is also employed by Satan. "Yes, I am an instrument. I am an officer of the Evil One." (p. 71) Perhaps this kind of omniscience is only available to those whose souls are sold into just such a slavery. And so we must decide... and decide without 'perfect knowledge', decide without very much knowledge of the real consequences at all.

Caspar David Friedrich, Cloister Cemetery in the Snow, 1819 (destroyed 1945)
Many times people's decisions are their own in appearance only, yet in reality are due to pressure from others or desire to appear one way or another or to get a result out of someone else... or out of guilt. Judith Budnitz explores this last sort of decision in her short story, "Guilt." When his mother suffers a life-threatening heart attack, Arnie is pressured by his aunts (and later his girlfriend and the doctor himself) to give up his own heart to save his mother's life. "What your mother wouldn't do for you," Aunt Fran shames her nephew. "She would do anything for you... anything in the world. And now you won't give just a little back." After much deliberation and no answers to his questions about what will become of his own life, Arnie chooses to donate his heart to his mother. This is how Arnie rationalizes his decision to himself:
"This is what I've realized. All along I thought I'd publish a book, lots of books, get recognition, earn lots of money, support my mother in style in her old age... give her gorgeous grandchildren. I thought that was the way to pay her back for everything I owe her. But now it looks like I have to pay my debts with my heart instead. Under these circumstances, I don't have a choice. I'm almost glad. It seems easier this way. I'll just give her a piece of muscle and then I'll be free of her forever, all my debts paid. One quick operation will be so much easier then struggling to do back to her all the things she thinks she's done for me. Seems like a good bargain."
Not surprisingly, it doesn't end well. After initially accepting the heart, Arnie's mother's health declines again and she ends up dying. Then, rather than Arnie's heart being returned to him, it is donated to a young blond child who has "her whole life ahead of her." His aunts are not pleased with his self-sacrifice but blame him for giving his mother a 'bad heart.' Forced to choose against his will, Arnie winds up with nothing... and mostly likely only a few days left to live of his own life. "I'm sure deep down you want her to have it too, don't you?" the doctor prevails upon Arnie about the decision to give his heart to the young girl... just as have all the others in his life. In the final summation, this doesn't seem like much of a choice... or much of a life.

Sometimes people choose, not because they are forced by others, but in order to influence others. In her short story, "Complicities," Alice Adams writes about Nan, a young girl with undiagnosed bulimia, who goes to stay with the Travises for the summer, "from a desire to 'build her up' ... [and also] an unspoken wish to do good to Mary and Jay, who are known to be 'up against it,' as the phrase went." Nan finds a private power in her thin, bony body and "feels herself possessed of vast and thrilling secrets" though it is not clear if her power derives from some sense of self-accomplishment or more from the attention she is receiving from the minister she babysits for, the pedophilic Dr. Thurston, who 'adores her pale thin body' and removes "her clothes to cover her body with his mouth, kissing her everywhere, breathing as though he might die." The turning point for Nan comes when Mary and Jay host one of their many dinner parties with the exception that, at this particular party, Mary begins singing 'Honeysuckle Rose' in accompaniment to a guest who is playing the tune on the piano.
"She is singing and laughing, embarrassed, but still her voice is rich and confident and sexy -- oh, so sexy! Mary is wearing a new blue dress, or maybe it's old. It is tight, some shiny material, stretched tight over those big breasts and hips. Nan, watching and listening ("-- it's so sweet when you stir it up --"), experiences an extreme and nameless, incomprehensible disturbance. She feels like throwing up, or screaming, or maybe just grabbing up her knees so that her body is a tight-knit ball -- and crying, crying there in her corner, in the semidark. Is this falling in love? Has she fallen in love with Mary? She thinks it is more that she wants to be Mary. She wants to be out there in the light, with everyone laughing and clapping. She wants to be singing, and fat. Oh, how wildly, suddenly, she yearns for flesh, her own flesh. Oh, fat!"
In this case, Nan makes a choice based upon who she wants to be. Yet, rather than figure out herself, she decides to become someone else... much easier. After questioning Jay about the figures of his two previous wives and discovering that they were "on the plump side. I've always liked a little flesh," Nan begins to eat without purging. Mary seems pleased, yet it is surely the case that she doesn't understand Nan's true motivation.

"Slipping back into bed without even brushing her teeth, Nan continues what has been a waking dream, a plan: next summer, when she is sleek and fat-- as fat as Mary is! -- she will come back up here, and Jay will fall madly in love with her. He will follow her everywhere, the way Dr. Thurston used to do. But she will say no, no kissing even. You belong to Mary. And Mary, finding out what Nan has done, will say what a wonderful girl Nan is, how truly good, as well as beautiful, and fat.
And then Nan will leave, probably off with some boyfriend of her own by then, and Mary and Jay will mourn for her. Always. 'If only Nan were with us again this summer,' they will say, for years and years."
This story just proves what Kwame Anthony Appiah has suggested -- that humans are notoriously bad at predicting the consequences of their own actions. It is obvious to us, as readers, that things will not turn out as Nan has planned. Further, her choice was made not on the basis of what is really best for her, but in order to remain in a holding pattern of sorts. She does not receive enough love and attention at home, thereby leading her to seek it elsewhere. In choosing to become healthier and heal her eating disorder, she only really wants to substitute a new attention for the previous attention of Dr. Thurston. Eating disorders, though they have complicated motivations, are often, in part, about pleasing others. And Nan is still stuck in that desire. Her choice is not one of growth or progress but of stasis. She still seeks to be admired for her physicality and does not challenge herself to grow as a person... to do the hard thing despite its difficulty.

Fear plays into most decision-making, I think. Fear certainly relates to the unknown and relatedly, to the unpredictability of the real world outcome of our choices. Life is complicated and these complications tend to weave uncomfortably into our toughest decisions. Appiah writes that: "One reason that life is full of hard decisions is precisely that it's not easy to identify single principles... that aim to tell you what to do." (Appiah, Cosmopolitanism, 2006, p. 162) And even if we could, the outcome of terrible decisions can be beneficial in a broad way so that, in hindsight, one would not necessarily alter the original decision.
"What would the world look like if people always spent their money to alleviate diarrhea in the Third World and never on a ticket to the opera (or a donation to a local theater company, gallery, symphony orchestra, library, or what have you?) Well, it would probably be a flat and dreary place. You do not need to say -- as Unger would invite you -- that the lives of children you could have saved were just worth less than your evening at the ballet. That answer presupposes that there is really only one thing that matters: that all values are measurable in a single thin currency of goodness and badness. It was terribly wrong that slaves were worked to death building the pyramids -- or, for that matter, in building the United States -- but it is not therefore terrible that those monuments, or this nation, exist. Not all values have a single measure. If the founders of this nation had dealt only with the most urgent moral problems facing them -- and let us suppose that it was, indeed, slavery -- they would almost certainly not have set in motion the slow march of political, cultural, and moral progress, with all its sallies and its retreats, that Americans justly take pride in." (p. 166)
And so we cannot go by consequences, for we don't know them. We cannot go by what is the 'lesser evil' because morality and decisions do not 'have a single measure.' All is interconnected... and confusing. Thus, we are back to 'our gut.' What does your gut say? It interests me that this phrase is so physical as many decisions relate to our bodies. One of the worst degradations of colonial authorities towards their captive populations was the ability to control what happened to their bodies. As David Horn writes: "The ability of the criminal anthropologist to command the presence of the criminal body, to compel it to be undressed, to be measured, even to yield to painful manipulations, was in many ways an example of the broader relations of power that characterized the practice of medicine -- particularly in prisons -- at the beginning of the twentieth century." (David Horn, "Performing Criminal Anthropology," in Anthropologies of Modernity, Jonathan Xavier Inda (ed.), 2005, p.144) Early medicine, and colonialism, was fundamentally about authority and power.. and who wielded it. Indeed, power (and its relation to the body) has long been a function of executive decision-making. As, Inda explains in his introduction:
"In Machiavelli's thinking, the prince's chief goal in the exercise of power must be to protect and strengthen the principality. This last is understood not as 'the objective ensemble of its subjects and the territory' but instead as 'the prince's relation with what he owns, with the territory he has inherited or acquired, and with its subjects'. The idea here is that sovereignty is first and foremost exercised on a territory and only as a consequence on the subjects who populate it. Indeed, it is the territory that is the fundamental element in Machiavelli's principality. Everything else is a mere variable. This is not to say that subjects do not really matter. They do, but only as it concerns the law." (p.3)
The same can be at work in relationships. Unfortunately, all relationships revolve around power and power-sharing. In healthy relationships, power is shared and controlled by the various strengths of each partner, each person contributing a certain dominance over particular aspects of the relationship. It is not so much that one person has power over the other, but rather that each person has power over structural aspects of the working whole. Thereby, together, the two people build something that is more than the sum of its parts. In an unhealthy relationship, however, much the opposite can be true. One person, oftentimes the male, has (and asserts) direct power over the other partner... over that person's choices and over that person's body. Think about how many women are forced (by physical pressure or threats) into having an abortion when it is not what they really want.

Abortion poses its own challenge as a difficult decision. A human being, equal parts of its parents, begins to grow inside only one of those parents -- the mother. Because of the fact that that child is one-half of the mother and one-half of the father, it seems rational to argue that the decision must be agreed upon equally by the two people. Yet, because of the latter fact (that the baby is only in the mother's body), it also seems rational to argue that it is the mother's decision alone (or, at least, predominantly) since it directly affects her body... and nothing can be more intimate or personal than making a decision about one's own body. So, how is that decision to be made? What if the two parents disagree? To whom does the final decision belong? It seems an irresolvable sort of dilemma. There is also what I would call the 'aftermath' to consider. It is likely that the trauma of an abortion will most strongly affect the woman. It is she that has felt the life begin to grow inside of her. That child is already real to her. And it is she that will feel the actual physical pain of that life being sucked out of her and then the hollowness... literally. For after a woman has an abortion, she will lie in her bed at night and experience the physical trauma of what doctors call phantom limb sensation... the feeling of presence and pain or movement related to such existence but without the actual physical sensation of the limb... or in this case, the baby. And what when that feeling fades? It still leaves a sharp emptiness, one that women often feel horrible guilt for even if they knew they abortion was the 'right decision.' I could go on with this example, the point being that again, the consequences of a decision can hardly guide us. They can be a sort of trap of logic. One cannot say, with certainty, that the existence of a child will wreck his/her life more or less than the non-existence of that child. One cannot give as a reason for abortion that one is 'not ready' because no one is ever ready for the challenges in life that force us to grow. I go back to the first line of Hamlet's famous soliloquy -- "To be or not to be" he says. Yes, because decision-making is about who you are choosing to be more than it is about predicting outcomes that cannot be known.

A while back, I came across a book titled Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal by Rachel Remen, M.D. I am not the type to buy or even peruse 'self-help' books because so often they seem disingenuous, condescending, dominated by the author's personal agenda, or just sappy and cliche. But this is really a book of stories, life stories, stories of real people placed in both recognizable and extraordinary situations. As a physician and listener, Remen has heard and witnessed many such stories. And, being a writer and an English teacher, I believe that stories heal... and help. In her introduction to the chapter titled "Traps," Remen writes:
Those who don't love themselves as they are rarely love life as it is either. Most people have come to prefer certain of life's experiences and deny and reject others, unaware of the value of the hidden things that may come wrapped in plain or even ugly paper. In avoiding all pain and seeking comfort at all costs, we may be left without intimacy or compassion; in rejecting change and risk we often cheat ourselves of the quest; in denying our suffering we may never know our strength or our greatness. Or even that the love we have been given can be trusted.

It is natural, even instinctive to prefer comfort to pain, the familiar to the unknown. But sometimes our instincts are not wise. Life usually offers us far more than our biases and preferences allow us to have. Beyond comfort lie grace, mystery, and adventure. We may need to let go of our beliefs and ideas about life in order to have life." (Remen, 1994, p. 75)
Perhaps the hardest thing about decision-making is that it involves risk and it involves loss. Whatever choice we make, we lose the path of the alternate choice that we did not make. And if we knew 'in our gut' that that was the road we really wanted to go down, then we are left to live with regret... possibly the most painful and debilitating emotion on earth. Regret leads to more self-hatred and then to a more circumscribed world as we search only to do the things that will keep us protected, as Remen suggests, but not the things that will enable us to grow... or the things that will fill our lives with genuine meaning and fullness.

Choices are full of pain. But that doesn't mean we should hide from them or find the least painful solution. Pain can be an opening to meaning. Remen again:
We are always putting the pieces together without knowing the picture ahead of time. I have been with many people in times of profound loss and grief when an unsuspected meaning begins to emerge from the fragments of their lives. Over time, this meaning has proven itself to be durable and trustworthy, even transformative. It is a kind of strength that never comes to those who deny their pain." (p. 170)
I am in the throes of a difficult decision myself. I used to be a sort of mini-Hamlet of decisions. I thought and thought and fretted and researched and thought and thought some more. Two people in my life, on different occasions, have given me advice that has helped. First, when I was a college student, I spent a summer working for U.S. Fish and Wildlife in Alaska. I had been fearful to go in the first place -- not only because it was such a wild and unknown and disconnected place, but more directly because one of the biologists working there that summer had just disappeared, presumed dead by sinking into the mud flats as he crossed one of the glacial melts that fed into the lake where the field site was located. Now my sense that the place was dangerous was confirmed and I feared for my own safety. In hindsight, though, I can see that I used this knowledge as an excuse. I wasn't really afraid that I, too, would die, sucked into the lake. I was just afraid. Afraid of flying alone all the way to Alaska, afraid of what the experience would be life, afraid of whether I would be able to do it, afraid of the unknown and of my own inner strength. Was I brave enough, strong enough to do this? It seemed quite terrifying. This, too, almost makes me laugh when I think of it now. Perhaps because it wasn't really all that scary at all... and also because the experience came to be one of the more formative personal experiences of my life. I not only survived, I loved it there and I loved the person that I was... a person that I had not known I could become. A person I never would have become if I had succumbed to my own fears.

During that same summer, I was invited by U.S. Fish and Wildlife to extend my internship and move to a different field site to work for another month. Again, I was scared. It was unexpected, not in my plans, and again, it was a new place where I couldn't predict what the experience would be like. I agonized for a day or two over the decision. The problem was it was a decision that needed to be made by a particular deadline and that deadline was approaching fast. Should I stay on? Would I like the new site? I had heard there were more bears there -- would I be safe? How would I communicate my extended stay to my parents who were expecting me home in a few days? Finally, unable to decide either way, I went to talk to an older woman who had volunteered to work on the migratory songbird research through Earthwatch. She had become, over the past month, a trusted friend and a sort of surrogate mother to me. The advice she gave me was simple and profound. In so many words she counseled me: "What do I think? I think you should stay. Of course, it is your choice. I cannot tell you if you will enjoy the experience or not. What I can tell you is that, either way, it will be an experience... and we learn from experiences, both the good and the bad." Growth. That was her answer. Whatever happened in my second month out in Alaska, I would grow. Going home, I would merely return to comfort. I stayed. And I have never regretted that decision.

The other person who gave me similar advice was my favorite professor at the University of Michigan when I attended graduate school there. To be completely honest, I do not even remember what I was struggling with... perhaps it was leaving the program after the first year, as that was something I considered but did not end up doing. Perhaps it was something else. I often went to him under the pretense of needing help with something school-related when in reality I wanted some solid life advice. One such time, he told me a story. He had gone to Berkeley for his undergrad degree and he said that whenever he had a hard decision to make, he used to walk down along the rocky shoreline and then climb up to a place high above the sea, sit himself on a rock, and sit and ponder what to do. "Finally one day I realized that I could sit on a rock for days, even weeks. What I needed to do was just act."

Thinking can cloud our decision-making. Or, in Hamlet-esque style, it can paralyze our ability to act. I am still stuck with the question of how we are to make difficult decisions. Rather than trying to predict outcomes, it makes sense to listen: to listen to our past experiences that may provide insight, to listen to others who have had similar experiences, most of all, to listen to our hearts. Yes, our hearts... rather than our gut. I like to believe, in fact I must believe, that there is some knowledge inside of us that can guide us in the 'right' direction. We cannot choose to avoid difficulty or pain; we cannot choose because we do not think we can handle something; we cannot choose for others; we cannot choose based on what we think may or may not happen. We should not choose based on bargaining as Arnie does or on taking what seems the easier route. It can only lead to death, real as Arnie's, or a death of the soul... and living with a dead soul can be worse than literal death. We can only choose in this moment with the self that we are at this time... but we can choose the self we want to become. The self that stands up and faces a challenge head on or the one who hides his head in the sand because of his own fear or self-loathing. I can't imagine that living with your head in the sand will lead to becoming a person that you ever will like. I want to be proud of myself. I know that I can do the thing I do not think I can do... I have done as much in the past many times. In choosing our future selves rather than future consequences, we choose our own destiny. As Kahlil Gibran has said, "We choose our joys and sorrows long before we experience them." That is because we choose what kind of person faces our own future. We cannot see the amazing view at the top of the mountain without struggling through the forest, sweating and being scraped by branches. We cannot know where we will arrive, but we usually know when we should take that journey.

1 comment:

  1. I just read that whole thing, and boy are my lips tired.

    Nice post. I would only add two things. First, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a nice book looking at our decision-making process called Blink (2005). Through interesting anecdotes, he presents a paradox: Some of our best judgments are snap decisions, almost instinctual in nature, while long, drawn-out information gathering and group-think lead to protracted paralysis and poor decisions. And yet, we think of snap decisions as usually being poor themselves, and very often they ARE poor. That's why we guard against them with long, drawn-out information gathering and group-think, which leads to protracted paralysis and poor decisions. So in the end, we tell ourselves to "go with our gut," unless a 12-member committee submits a preliminary report telling us that our gut is wrong. (I say if nothing else, the advantage of snap decisions is that they leave us more time to clean up the mess that ensues. It is really an efficiency argument. For example, if instead of debating the attack against Iraq we had just gone in on September 12th, we would have had almost two extra years to stabilize things. This is, by the way, the same guiding principle that governed the way our grandmother Rich used to drive. Whether merging or changing lanes, she found it better to go all the way and deal with the honking that followed, than not to tentatively go half way, and still deal with the honking, but not get anywhere. Or so I've been told. And I digress).

    Second, on a political note, a sad irony of the abortion dilemma is just now emerging: while it is women who are doing the choosing, the choice more often than not comes at the expense of future women. A recent study estimates that there are "60 million missing girls" in Asia--that is 60 million girls who should have been born but weren't. In China and India, this is leading to a growing and unsustainable imbalance between boys and girls. If we allow people to chose, don't we also allow the consequences?