Language and Choice

I have to go to work in the morning.

I have to get the house clean.

I have to finish this term paper.

I have to pay my bills.

I have to make this sweater for my mother.

Ever said anything like that? (Be honest, you have!) We all do. It’s an idiomatic quirk of the English language. Idioms are telling, however, and this is something I’ve been examining lately.

I’ve been doing an experiment lately –replacing “have to” with “choose to” or “want to”.

“Honey, I want to get enough sleep not to feel badly in the morning when I go to work, so I want to go to bed now.”

“I know that Martian Spider Silk would make a great sweater, but I am choosing to pay my rent rather than buy the silk at this time.”

“I want to get the house clean.”

I notice a serious emotional difference. Instead of feeling put upon, I feel a sense of power. Now, people often feel different things, but I find that because I am removing “have to” and “should” from my vocabulary, I am experiencing two things:

First, I feel a sense of empowerment. There is this sense of endless possibility, and I could choose any of it. This means, I am much more focused on doing what I really want.

Second, a sense of background guilt is gone. I don’t feel bad if I don’t clean the house. I chose not to! I didn’t skip out on what I “should” do. If I want a clean house more than I want to fuck around on the Internet, I am perfectly free to put the computer down and pick up the cleaning rag.

Now you might say, “But I don’t have a choice — not really!”

But you do. For every Harriet Tubman, there were hundred of people in the ante-bellum South who said, “I don’t like slavery, but I can’t help any of the slave escape. It’s too dangerous.”

What they were not saying was, “I am choosing not to help in this, as I do not want to risk myself/my wife/my husband/my children in this. My immediate family is more important.” This is not a judgment. Were my immediate family not more important to me than the General State of People I Don’t Know, I would be living very differently from how I choose to live.

When you remove “have to” from your life, all of a sudden you are faced with the fact that everything you do is a choice and it is very difficult to hide from facing the reality of choices you don’t want to make or are uncomfortable coping with the consequences of. I choose to be heavy rather than to diet, and I am aware that’s a choice. I choose to write a lot because it works for me and makes me happy. I choose to get rid of clutter, not because it’s acceptable to have a neat house, but because it makes me happy. If I say, “I am choosing not to clean the house” and there is food rotting in the sink, I am directly confronted with the fact that there are things more important to me than whether or not the house stinks. The consequence is there and there is nothing to hide behind.

We live in a culture that trains us to be uncomfortable with facing up to doing what we want. Not only that, but we live in a culture that is not very accepting of choice. You’re supposed to want to earn a lot of money and accumulate a lot of physical things whether that really makes you happy or not. You’re supposed to have children, and God forbid if you say you choose not to.

Facing the fact that everything you do is a choice takes a lot of courage. You really face up to your self in a lot of ways, and it can be a path to self-judgment. You can feel bad about yourself because you really don’t want what you should want, whether or not it’s because of idealism or something more external. It’s a risk, too. Try saying, “I choose to do X” to someone in your life who doesn’t want you to do X. You can get all kinds of reactions from (happily) supportive to downright hostility. You’ll be asked to justify yourself. Now certainly you can choose to, but ya know what? You do not have to make choices that you can explain to another person such that you get an agreement as to the validity of your choice. You might want to. That choice might work best for you. But you do not have to.

It’s always down to choice.

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