Do We Choose Our Life?

When you woke up this morning, did you choose how to start your day or did it happen? Do you choose to hit the snooze or does it happen out of momentum, or do you get up without any difficulty? Do you choose how you start each day, or is it a habit that guides you? We are creatures of repetition. Having read Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit we learn that even people suffering complete long-term memory loss can create new habits through repetition, which brings up the question for the rest of us not suffering memory loss, are we choosing how to live our life or are we coasting and reacting to what life throws our way?

I try to live consciously, to become aware of the cues that trigger subconscious programs, like Pavlov’s dog, yet like for most of us, it’s an impossible undertaking to remain in control all the time. Life is too varied and unpredictable. Out of nowhere a brief encounter with a stranger in the store could trigger some trauma after years of dormancy, which you forgot existed, leading to all sorts of strange behaviors in your body’s emotional wiring. If you’ve studied Neuro-Linguistic Programming you’ll learn to see the body’s reactions, like panic attacks and phobias not as illnesses, but as the brain’s expertly learned ability to induce fear from set cues. They’re learned habits, which with the right tools we can overwrite very quickly.

When you see the mind as a tool that through habitual repetition can induce feelings of fear or joy given the cues, it sheds a new light on all our life situations, where something dramatic occurred, that triggered strong emotional responses. When we reflect on those experiences, it’s easy to get a distorted picture, one where our logical mind rationalizes things, labels its behavior, and justifies its actions based on environmental circumstances (“I had no choice, they were…”). Imagine, you’re an emotionally tender individual who gets in a quarrel with a rude cashier at the store, who you perceived to trigger your reaction, which triggered them, and like a chain reaction you both ignite. Such a personality holds specific unconscious memories that form subconscious triggers, that when in contact with a trigger, kicks off an unstable chemical reaction that causes a predictable reaction. This trigger is woven into the personality’s narrative, which it uses to justify its behavior. The unconscious narrative the mind thinks up ensures that the story repeats itself over and over until the narrative is sufficiently challenged.

The topic of narratives lends to the question: how pervasive are our narratives everywhere in our everyday lives? When we wake up in the morning, do everything we do until we leave the house and someone asks us “Why’d you do that, and why like that?” Our mind is expert at crafting a rational and convincing response. If you’ve ever met a chronic procrastinator, (me at times), you’ll hear a master storyteller able to craft a riveting story full of intricate, logical arguments to support the narrative of why they can’t do it now. The only difference between them and a chronic non-procrastinator is a different narrative, like a factory in China that can either produce cheap plastic souvenirs or medical supplies from the same resources. Our brain is like a factory, and the schematic in the assembly line defines what product it produces, only it’s neither tangible nor objective.

Imagine our body’s mind-body connection as a navigator atop an elephant traveling through life. The navigator is our rational thinking mind, capable of recalling the past and making choices to influence the future and the elephant is the body that feels and receives orders from the mind. If the navigator neglects the needs of the elephant, it’s only a matter of time until the beast runs wild. Only this metaphor misses out on the fact, that the body constantly sends signals to the mind and one could argue that the navigator holding the reigns is nothing more than a storyteller who observes the elephant’s reactions and crafts a narrative around it.

I believe choice is an illusion, and that the navigator/storyteller can influence the elephant but it’s the beast who chooses for us in the now. Whether it’s true or not, it’s an empowering narrative because, like a passenger sitting in a self-driving car manoeuvering a toy steering wheel at each turn, it gives me the choice whether to react to life’s happenings and agitate over my inability to control them or to observe the view and enjoy the ride. I don’t believe I’m in control of my life, and it’s liberating because no blame is cast, neither towards the elephant nor the little guy atop it. If the thinker takes responsibility for his or her reactions to life, it frees up space to see life for what it is, a gift. If it comes down to narrative, why choose the illusion of unhappiness?

Marius Miliunas

Successful ex-burnout and now full-time life-enthusiast, I am Marius. In my old life I was a web developer in the States, selling my potential to earn big bucks, while destined for an early grave. All of that changed, when I got out to attempt to build my own startup. That company's failure was a blessing...