From Chapter One: What Makes Deciding Possible
One beautiful morning Randy awoke, put on his clothes, and went downstairs to eat breakfast. His mother had already gotten out the milk, a bowl, a spoon, Raisin Bran, Cheerios and a cup of orange juice. Randy sits down and looks at the two cereals. He takes a moment to deliberate. Suddenly, pig feces fall from heaven and into the Raisin Bran box. He pauses, shrugs, and reaches for the Cheerios. I believe that despite Randy’s misfortune, he still has a choice here. Excrement has only made his decision obvious.
In any decision Randy considers, consciously or subconsciously, the pros and cons. In the case of cereal, Randy might like the laced honey on the Cheerios and the sports trivia on the back of the box. At the same time he may enjoy the sweet, chewy raisins in the bran and may be concerned that he was working a little hard on the toilet that morning. These factors are all very boring and insignificant, but they are nonetheless how you and I make boring, insignificant decisions all the time. Now, in the advent of pig poop, there is a new factor. After pitting the factor of poop against his need for bran and his desire for chewy raisins, it seems to him that avoiding the consumption of excrement is more important than attempting to remedy his slight constipation. And hey, he will still get to enjoy that great honey taste.
We make similarly unimportant decisions as we decide when to go to the bathroom, when to get out of bed, or how to heat up leftover soup. Often these choices do not seem like choices because they are routine, but routines have beginnings. Routines are built when we learn to rely on our past deliberative work, feeling less and less need to rehash it.
Sometimes the reasons why routines continue are not particularly rational. I am reminded of the story in which a daughter asks her mother, “Mom, why do you cut off the end of the ham before cooking it?” Mom says, “I don’t know. Your Grandma did it. Let’s go ask her.” Grandma doesn’t know either, so together they go ask Great-Grandma. She says, “I had a small pan and our hams wouldn’t fit.” All humans have a tendency to build routines around how those around them are doing comparable tasks, hence common linguistic practices, cultures, ways of thinking, cooking, etc. But even if one of our routines is based on a false premise, a decision is still there. Decisions are decisions regardless of the decider’s ignorance or poor rationale.
At the end of 7th grade, after I had been lifting weights all year and starting to get pretty buff, I went to music camp. As a kid my mom was always trying to get me to go to camps. I hated it because I stuttered. I would have to introduce myself to people, stutter on my name, then they would think I’m either stupid or telling a joke, which I think amounts to the same thing. One of the last nights at music camp they made a bonfire and we were all standing around hanging out. I was talking with this one cute girl and she liked me. I liked her too, but another guy also liked her and was trying to make his move. He walked up to join our discussion. At that moment, I was saying something and stuttering heavily. He chimed in with a loud nasally voice, “st-st-st-st-stupid.”
Thoughts fluttered in my brain. “He’s mocking me…my stuttering…he’s mocking me about stuttering in front of a hot girl…he’s small and annoying.” In a flash of rage I imagined myself grabbing his belt buckle with my near arm, grabbing his collar with my other hand, pulling him towards me and, in one smooth motion, turning him upside down and throwing him into the fire. I tensed my body and shifted towards him.
“Holy cow,” I thought to myself, “I am going to kill this kid.” The prospect sobered me up quick. (Though I didn’t throw him into the fire, I still got the little jerk. The girl was disgusted with him and sympathized with me. Stuttering always gets the girls.)
That day I realized that I was now physically powerful enough to do real damage. A child can get mad, throw tantrums and punch blindly with consequences amounting to a handful of bruises at most, but the tantrums of grown men can kill. At that point I had a whole new stratum of decisions to make because I was more powerful. Correction: because I realized I was more powerful. I was just as physically strong the moment before I got angry. The only thing that had changed is that now I more accurately grasped my capabilities. It is not having power which allows for decision, but believing you do.
In fact, when it comes to decision-making our true capabilities are completely irrelevant. Crazy people make all kinds of interesting decisions. Have you ever asked yourself, “Should I blot out the sun with my x-ray eyes?” or “Should I push California into the ocean?” Think of all the decisions that you would have to make if you sincerely believed yourself to be omnipotent.
Finally, in addition to belief in one’s own abilities, a decider needs a specific mental talent. He or she must be able to connect his or her perceived capabilities with courses of action possibly useful in alleviating the present conflict of values. For instance, everyday we make many relatively inconsequential choices without even considering alternatives. Usually this is prudent because we already know what the alternatives are and that they are no good, being too difficult or not helpful enough. But sometimes our efficiency of mind backfires and we miss opportunities. For example, for over a year my cell phone did not ring when I received calls. I often complained about it. One day my wife pointed out to me that the alarm clock worked, so at least the speakers could not be the problem. Immediately I decided to look into how the phone was programmed and, sure enough, the “normal” setting had been customized to exclude ringing. In addition to learning some humility, I saw that my ability to fix my phone was useless until I recognized the possibility that I could do it. Decisions can only present themselves when our minds are smart enough to see courses of action, to see if these actions connect with our list of values, and finally, to recognize our ability to implement any of them. Once they have done that, then we have a decision to make.
From Chapter Two: You
Because I grew up in Taiwan and Hong Kong, I will at times get frustrated trying to function in American culture, that is until I remember that I am not American. The problem is that I have a poor memory. To offset this weakness, I have made it my practice from the time I was young to fill my bedroom with reminders of my past. My walls and ceilings are full, my wife says “cluttered,” with rocks I’ve picked up from all over the world, old ticket stubs, faded pictures and the like. Though most people may not share my intensity and purposefulness in bedroom decorating, I imagine that I am not alone in decorating my personal space with objects I have picked up along the way. For those of you who share this idiosyncrasy even a little, I am confident you will understand why I call my view of freewill “My Room Freewill.” In our own Rooms, whatever our décor, this is where we make our decisions.
Everything we are is here: good and bad, messy, courageous, cowardly, loving, spiteful, bratty, generous, and most other things. No part of the whole is missing. In fact, because accurate perception of oneself is exceedingly difficult, some of us might have a hard time even recognizing our own Rooms. Fortunately, we do not have to know ourselves accurately in order to be free. We merely have to be ourselves, and that is universally inescapable.