There is a scene towards the end of the film Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade when Indy finally arrives to claim his treasure in a dimly lit cavern guarded by the last Knight of the Holy Grail. The trouble is, the bad guy also winds up there and he gets the first shot at grabbing the goblet that everyone wants. The ghostly, armored knight cautions the bad guy, “You must choose. But choose wisely…” Of course, he doesn’t and instantly turns to dust allowing Indy–who does choose wisely–to retrieve the chalice and go on to save the day, or the damsel, or the franchise, or whatever. The phrase immediately became a part of the cultural vernacular and “Choose Wisely” can now be found as an Internet meme, a T-shirt design, the theme of inspirational posters as well as a myriad of educational campaigns across the country and the world. In Indy’s case, the wrong choice resulted in death. That’s a bad choice, right? We’re often told to make a good choice, with the implication that the outcome will be good, too. But what if there is no so-called good choice?
Choice is a powerful and intentional process belonging to the human toolkit of executive functions. Even as children, we are encouraged to make choices, hopefully appropriate ones. An eight-year-old can’t choose what time to go to bed at night, but he can choose which pajamas to wear. If a child is allowed to make choices about outcomes that he or she cannot developmentally process, the process becomes dysfunctional, skewed. For example, in his work with divorcing parents, Angelo is often reminding them to not ask their child which parent he or she wants to live with. Children are not developmentally capable of making such a decision, and if they are and it is acted upon, it produces consequences that can be devastating. How could a child possibly choose with which parent to live? Giving children appropriate choices builds their confidence; giving them inappropriate choices can make them anxious or fearful. Decision-making becomes hampered.
Another way our decision making is impacted is that, somehow in our cultural development, we have been conditioned–even promised–to believe that making the right choice means we will be happy with the outcome. It sets us up to be disappointed time and time again. Not only that, but if we complain about said outcome, we are often greeted with the response that we must have made the “wrong choice.” And aren’t we judgmental about those we think have done just that? We are quick to judge the young woman who is working at minimum wage trying to raise a child or two and can’t seem to hoist herself out of poverty or welfare. She obviously made the “wrong choice.” Or maybe even several wrong choices. But what do we know about her circumstances at the time of these decisions? We can’t know of course, but we certainly judge her for her choices now. What options must a young woman like that have? She has to work to pay her rent, bills, insurance. How does she choose to make her life better?
Don’t we all struggle and work and desperately yearn to make the right choice? Only to be blown back by those times when it turns out we didn’t? What happened? Nothing. Because sometimes there is no good choice. Sometimes, we have to choose the greater of two evils.
Sophie’s Choice is a phrase now used as an example of having to choose between two undesirable options or not choosing where no outcome is preferable than the other. It comes from William Styron’s book of the same name which came out in 1979. Sophie’s choice was tragic, but the phrase is used to describe issues from the political to social. We are so conditioned to make “good choices” though, that it can be difficult to process the prospect of not having any of our options be “good” ones.
For example—my elderly father can’t live by himself anymore and no one else in our family was either willing or able to take on the responsibility of taking him in, so Angelo and I remodeled our house and brought him home with us. It started out okay, but it soon became clear that he wasn’t happy living with us, even though I believe we all do our best at making it work. Then, one day, a misstep off the front porch resulted in a broken ankle and almost 3 months of rehab. When the rehab facility discharged him before he was able to walk on his own, we decided to try out a nearby assisted living facility (ALF), rather than to completely renovate our downstairs to equip it for his recuperative needs. The ALF was more adequate to accept him in with his continuing need for care and we also thought it was worth a try to help him attempt to live a more independently. It didn’t hurt that we were going to have a bit of our life back since he wouldn’t be a 24/7 resident with us anymore.
This went on for a few months until we realized that, even with lots of extra, costly support, he wasn’t really competent enough to care for himself. We had to acknowledge that this attempt didn’t work, and we were faced with a decision: pay even more money each month for support that we weren’t very happy with or bring him back home. We felt that any independence he was able to demonstrate was in the supportive context of our own care, as opposed to institutional care. However, having him come back home would require us to be back on the job day and night. We already knew what that looked like; it was challenging at best–damaging at worst. For all of us.
This was our choice. Keep him there–paying more money for less reliable care or bring him home, plunging us back into a never-ending cycle of resentment (his at having to be taken care of) and frustration (ours at not having time to be alone in our own home). There wasn’t a good choice.
We constantly struggled with questions: Where would he go if he couldn’t live with us? How are we going to retire, travel, pursue a second career if we have a daily obligation to my father? This isn’t just true for us; many people are in a similar situation. People with plans, goals, jobs to consider. If by making a choice, you aren’t able to pursue any of your options anymore do you still have a choice?
There is always someone out there–friend, pastor, neighbor, medical professional–who will announce: You always have a choice! And then they pat themselves on the back for having delivered fitting advice to a friend in need. As a therapist, Angelo’s task is to help his clients explore their choices rather than pronounce them good or bad. It’s the exploration that gives us the most options. “Having a choice” implies the hope–that there’s always a way out of an unpleasant predicament because you have a choice. Our brain steers us to what it is accustomed to because it feels familiar, comfortable. There is a preference offered, a possibility to make the choice you enjoy more.
But what about when there is no enjoyment, no relief? A choice where there is no relief or fulfillment produces frustrating outcomes that do not ever result in the desired intentions. There’s no happiness in lost opportunities or postponed plans. In making a choice, though, lost opportunities and postponed plans don’t exist yet. In Angelo’s and my situation, the only thing that existed was my father’s care and our availability. The choice actually ended up being very simple–bring him home. That it wasn’t a very pleasing option wasn’t part of the choice. The choice part–the responsibility–was to provide my father with the best care. It was the correct choice.
We are all constantly making choices, weighing one outcome against another, looking for the “good” choice when in fact there may not be one. Choosing wisely is all we can do, to the best of our ability. If we succeed at this work we can then accept that the “correct” choice is likely to feel uncomfortable because it is unfamiliar. It’s important to distinguish between good choice and correct choice. Good choice seems to imply one that delivers a pleasing outcome and is easy to execute. Correct choice would be one that is in accordance with one’s intentions but might be uncomfortable to implement. The discomfort experienced when having to choose between two difficult options can be an opportunity to explore more deeply who we are and what we can understand about our journey as human beings. The right choice, while not always comfortable, can still be the best choice.