Stephanie Dowrick on choice and freedom

Most of us talk a great deal about freedom. And regard it as an ideal. Living that ideal though – and the sense of choice and inner authority that it implies – is something else altogether. In my own life I struggle not to use the “slave” words: “have to”, “must”, “can’t”. And I try to catch myself when I say, “I have no time to…”.

This is not because I do always have time. Nor is it because my life is free of things I should, ought, or must do. It’s because when I use those phrases I am cutting off the essential oxygen of free choice – even if that choice can extend only to when I choose to do those things and, even more crucially, how I do them (cheerfully, practically, resentfully).

 How we make our daily choices – with what attitude and sense of freedom – may matter even more than what choices we make.

Releasing ourselves from doing the essentials only when or if we “feel like it” is a great step towards freedom. Ruled by our feelings or passing emotional states, we limit our sense of choice significantly. And we utterly curtail our personal power.

Doing things because we can, or because they need doing, or because we will support or help someone else, we engage our “thinking brain” and our will. And the benefits are immediate.

We talk very little about will in 21st-century life. It may even seem a quaint idea to you. Yet our maturity and power to choose depend entirely upon it. It’s another way of talking about our inner authority: that we are creating our lives from the inside out and not just bouncing around in response to others’ views of how we should live. Without choosing consciously, without exercising our power to choose, we have no chance of growing up.

This doesn’t mean we will always choose wisely. We won’t. But it does mean we can limit the tension and anxiety that comes when we could be getting on with something, but are telling ourselves all the reasons why it’s not fair…why it’s someone else’s job…why it’s outrageous that we should have to…or whatever your particular inner moan is!

We squander time, as well as gain from it. We squander our freedom to choose…until we know what “choosing” means. Choosing to do something because you can – and especially because it will benefit others as well as yourself – is immensely freeing. I have written about this in several of my books and very explicitly and practically in Choosing Happiness.

The most famous example of this isn’t new: it’s the story from the Christian gospel (Matthew) of “walking the second mile”: doing more than is strictly required. Why? Because you can! Because you are free to do so. Because when your attitude changes, few tasks are as onerous as they first appear.  And, crucially, because once something is done, or even just underway, your feeling state will anyway change. And so will the ease and attitude of the people around you. (You become much easier to be around. Others will be far keener to co-operate with you!)

Making choices about how you will do the essentials rather than whether you feel like doing them, you are taking charge. You will be less resentful; you are likely also to be more efficient and far more cheerful. But none of this can be discovered in the abstract.

So what next?

I would urge you to use your journal or a notebook to list on a brief, cheerful, daily basis what needs to be done. Notice what you would often avoid or postpone. Set priorities. Create time limits. Circumvent your usual habits of postponement.  And keep your goals modest. Changing habitual ways of thinking is easy when you are curious and motivated; even easier when you are tracking your results and enjoying them.

This doesn’t mean your feelings don’t matter. But they needn’t rule how you live in the world. You are more than your feelings: this helps you to discover that.

Finally, but not least, there are often “things to be done” – or even attitudes, words, emotions to be expressed – that arise spontaneously and can’t be planned for. Choice matters here, too. One of the most debilitating, self-pitying things we can say about ourselves is, “I couldn’t help it.” Discovering that we can “help it” – that we can take charge of our responses and particularly how we live in the world and alongside other people – is literally transformative.  It lifts our mood and our sense of agency and effectiveness. It creates a different sense of the world “outside” as well as “inside”.

No one can create that change for us; no one will benefit more from it than we will.


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