“All organisms with complex nervous systems are faced with the moment-by-moment- question that is posed by life: What shall I do next?”
Sue Savage-Rumbaugh / Roger Lewin
I’m continually making choices from a huge range of possible things I could do. Right now I’m choosing to write and each moment is a decision to carry on writing rather than choose some other attractive possibilities. I could be making myself a coffee (or a nice herbal tea), taking a nap (I was up very early this morning!), putting on some music (my daughter’s watching TV so I may need to negotiate that one!) or one of any other options, limited only by my imagination.
Yet I choose to persevere with this article even though nobody stands over me with a gun at my head.
Everything is a Choice
EVERYTHING I do is a decision from a range of choices. It’s not always an easy decision, but it is a decision nonetheless, and it is MY decision.
Learning NVC helped me realise how I tend to limit this wonderful freedom of choice by telling myself I ‘Have To’ do certain things.
I lived a large part of my life this way. At work I had ‘to do lists’ of things that had to be done and usually took up the whole day. And then bills had to be paid. Family had to be visited. The lawn had to be cut, car washed, shopping done, garbage taken out, children played with, newspaper read, and on and on and on. I could fill the article with all the things I ‘had to’ do.
I reckon that at least 90% of what I did in a typical day was motivated by the words ‘I Have To’. I think I’ve moved it to somewhere around 20% which I consider a huge step forward and I look forward to the day when it’s zero!
Yes … But There Are Things You Just HAVE to do!
I often hear people tell me they have responsibilities and duties and if everyone did whatever they wanted the civilised world would crumble into chaos and take the uncivilised world with it. There are some things people just have to do. Then they list examples, such as paying taxes, sending kids to school, earning money, respecting the law.
What’s on your list of things people have to do?
My guess is for every single item on the list you’ll find more than one example of someone who didn’t do it. Probably you’ll find some instances when even you didn’t. As a scientific theory ‘some things people just have to …‘ doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny.
So if it’s not a universal law, where did it come from? I think there are several reasons.
1. The Power of Language
Language is a powerful force in shaping our thoughts and actions. And what better way to control large numbers of people than to convince them they have no choice about certain things. It’s not really in the interests of government, for example, to encourage you to see paying taxes as a choice. Or in the interests of business leaders for you to think earning money (and spending) is an option rather than a compulsion.
I’m not into grand conspiracy theories. My guess is in the deep, distant past, those who elevated themselves into positions of power found they could more easily control people by convincing them they had to obey authority. Having obedient serfs consumes less energy than having to threaten and punish all the time. Nowadays the serfs are all citizens and employees but the principle remains.
2. Lack of Imagination
I still catch myself thinking there is only one possibility in front of me so I have no choice. What I really mean is I can’t, at the moment, see any other strategy for meeting my needs. It’s more a temporary lack of imagination than anything else. Recognising it this way I find helpful because then I can put my energy into developing other options, maybe talking it over with someone or just plain old procrastination until I get a new idea.
3. Fear of Consequences and Avoiding Responsibility
If there was indeed a gun pointing at my head and I was being told to write I might easily argue, ‘I had to write it.’ It may seem like a stupid example, yet I can think of many interactions I’ve had, especially in organisational contexts, where people behave as though they are looking down the barrel of a firearm. It seems quite common in the public sector for some reason.
Well the truth is I still chose to write it. I didn’t much like the option of getting hurt and probably the fear I was experiencing prevented me from seeing other possible ways out. Like talking to my assailant. Disarming him (or her). Running away.
Choose to …
I’m not suggesting you stop paying taxes, earning money, sending your kids to school or taking the garbage out.
I am suggesting you chooseto do these things (or not) out of a conscious awareness about what serves you and serves others. I do, for example, choose to pay taxes. Partly because I enjoy and appreciate some of the things the money is used for, and partly because I don’t want to deal with the consequences of avoiding tax. Some of my needs are not met (for example, when the money is spent on weapons) but overall enough needs are met for me to do it. And this way it doesn’t feel like a burden.
I found when I do something from this energy of choice rather than obligation I enjoy it more, feel less fear and take responsibility for my life.
So please, if you enjoyed this article, you don’t have to leave a comment but you could choose to.
Welcome! I'm Ian Peatey and this site is one way I share Nonviolent Communication (NVC) by writing articles and sharing information about NVC materials, news and people. I hope you'll be a frequent visitor.
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