Life is replete with moments where the fraction of a second it can take to make a decision will change you irrevocably. What may seem like a small matter at the time can end up being the instant that completely changes the direction you were taking. Conversely, seemingly important decisions end up having little or no bearing on your future.
At the time you have no idea what will result from the choice you make. Sometimes it may even take years to find out. Of course there’s always the element of risk involved that you will have made the wrong decision, but I’ve always considered the opposite of change, stagnation, an even worse option.
There have been some choices I’ve made that have been most decidedly wrong. Ones that have ended up in jail time, addiction, and alienating pretty much everybody who I had considered a friend. Those are the times we look back on and say. “Boy, if I only had that to do over again…” But if I’m really honest with myself I know that if somehow I were transported back to that moment in time again and again, without ever having been through the experience before, I would continually make the same choices.
I look back on the person who I was then; the information that I had at my disposal on how people were supposed to behave; and my attitude towards the world, and see no other options for that person. While it is true that we are all free to make any decision we see fit, isn’t it also true that a person’s judgement is affected by what they have observed and lived through up until that time?
I’ve never used any of my life experiences as an excuse for my behaviour or my choices. Every decision I have made has been mine and nobody has forced me to do anything. What I’m talking about are explanations for behaviour. It sure made it easier for me to learn from my screw-ups and change my behaviour once I understood the reasons why I had done them
Once you’ve seen the looks of hurt and betrayal on the faces of people you love whom you had screwed over; once you hear the pain and disbelief in their voices you never forget it. What makes it even worse is when the big question why hangs over the whole affair. I don’t know sounds pretty lame and is not a satisfying answer in those circumstances for anyone.
I’m sure there are people out there for whom it wouldn’t matter one way or another if they knew why they had done something or not. If you’re not prepared to accept responsibility for your actions, knowing the reason why isn’t going to make an iota of difference. For those who are, though, the knowledge that your judgement had been impaired through emotional and mental conditioning is both a comfort and a warning.
Although some people might consider the prospect of further jail time if you re-offend enough of a warning, one only need look at the rate of recidivism among petty offences to know how little a deterrent that is. What’s more important to heed is the knowledge that you are not in a position to trust your own judgement.
This is what I was referring to when I said that some decisions were affected by what a person had lived through up until that time. The term Schema is used to refer to the manner in which we organize information available to us in order to respond to a situation. If somewhere along the way you have adapted schemas that are based on distorted information, the manner in which you react to the world will be confined to that distorted view of the world.
Wouldn’t this have a detrimental effect on both your judgement and your decision making process? If you are convinced that everyone will end up hurting you, or that nobody cares about you, and that everybody is just out to take advantage of you because of your life experience, it’s bound to have some affect on the choices you make.
Think about the feelings that such thought patterns would generate. Resentment, anger, self-loathing and mistrust are emotions that don’t allow for clear thinking and level headed judgement. The decision making process that shapes our fortunes and destiny was removed from your control by the conditions that brought about this mode of thinking.
In the same way a strict religious upbringing will affect the decisions you make, based on the morality espoused by your beliefs, the Schemas developed by events during your formative years dictate your behaviour. But in the case of Schemas you don’t know that they are controlling you.
Unlike a moral code that you consciously learn, Schemas register on an unconscious level. They are a conditioned reflex brought about by how you have been treated and, no matter what you have been taught otherwise, supersede all other means of behaviour. Usually they actually contradict those tenets that you have been taught about “right and wrong”.
If by day you are told that all people are created equal and that you should treat everyone with respect, but by night you are sexually abused by one of the people who are supposed to be nurturing and protecting you, what are you going to believe is reality? Isn’t there a good chance that the later will end up predominating?
It has only been in the past year that I have been able to begin to throw off these shackles of the past that have controlled me emotionally. As recently as August of 2005 I was still figuring out behavioural patterns that were the direct result of events that occurred close to forty years ago.
I know enough now to be able to question decisions and reactions if they seem out of proportion to the circumstances that’s caused them. I’m confident that I won’t be making decisions that I will live to regret anymore and the judgements I make will be based on the reality of the present, not the conditioning of the past.
Our decision making ability; our capacity to chose between what’s right and wrong is what supposedly elevates us above other forms of life. For the survivor of any circumstances that caused an enforced modification of this ability; beginning to reclaim that power is like being freed from slavery. It is the last stage in throwing off the domination of the past and welcoming the glory of an independent future.
To be able to make a decision completely on your own is a gift beyond all others. With it comes great responsibility, but without it we are not truly alive.