4 Types of Choices: Non-Choices

We don’t think about our habits.  We just do them.  Unconscious choices are the fourth type of choices that belong in our inner inventory.  Most of us have some habits that are healthy and some that are destructive.  I once heard destructive habits called nuisance sins.  They may not be the most obvious obstacles in our relationship with God, but our habits inform our character.  Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character.  Character is everything.”

Our thoughts inform not only our character but also our feelings.  Many of our poor choices are fuelled by feelings like hate, greed, envy and entitlement.  Feelings aren’t a choice, but thoughts are.  Exercising self-control in thinking is shown to have an impact on feelings.  Therefore, developing habits of resisting negative influences in our thinking will inform our feelings as well as our words, deeds and habits. 

Some habits are more than nuisance sins.  They can interfere with or even destroy everything of value in our lives.  Someone fighting addiction can testify to the fact that habits left unchecked will eventually rob us of choice. 

The opposite of a mindless habits is a mindful habit—doing everything, even small things, conscientiously with thankful hearts in the service of God.  19th century priest and author, Edward Meyrick Gouldburn (1818 -1897), best known for his tenure as Dean of Norwich, urged the following:

As far as human frailty will permit, each little trifling piece of duty which presents itself to us in daily life, if it be only a compliance with some form of social courtesy, should receive a consecration, by setting God – His will, word and Providence – before us in it, and by lifting up our hearts to Him in ejaculatory prayer, while we are engaged in it.  The idea must be thoroughly worked into the mind, and woven into the texture of our spiritual life, that the minutest duties which God prescribes to us in the order of His Providence – a casual visit, a letter of sympathy, an obligation of courtesy, are not by any means too humble to be made means of spiritual advancement, if only the thing be done “as to the Lord, and not to men.”

When I shine a flashlight into myself to take inventory of my choices, it helps me to make notes.  Sometimes putting words to thoughts gives them better definition and stimulates deeper thinking.  If you are reflecting over a long period of your lifetime, spend some time looking over how actions or attitudes in one stage of life connect to another.  Consider whether something unconscious in one life stage prompted a deliberate effort or reaction in a later life stage.  For example, perhaps a career or relationship setback prompted greater reliance on and intimacy with God.  Perhaps a reactive feeling such as low self-worth gave way to an unthinking habit like arrogance towards those less fortunate.  On the other hand, awareness of my earlier elitist attitudes may give rise to intentional efforts to discourage prejudiced jokes in my presence. 

If you can isolate one or two unconscious attitudes or habits that have caused you angst, then you have exposed what needs to be held up for God’s mercy and healing power.

Join the conversation.  Where has God been in the midst of your choices? 

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

4 Types of Choices: Reactive Choices

Every person has some element of his upbringing to overcome.  Some have pretty smooth sailing, yet childhood challenges that seem easily manageable still trip them up as adults.  Others endure injuries so devastating it’s hard to imagine how they could survive to adulthood, much less to function normally, and yet they thrive.  Each of us develops patterns of behavior in response to experience, and we all have hurts, habits or hang-ups to overcome.

Our inner inventory should include not only those choices we made when we had a wide range of options within reach but also those that are reactions to experience, especially experiences that impaired our ability to choose in some way.  It may be counterintuitive that taking inventory of our own wrong choices involves examining the wrongs committed against us.  Maybe we are eager to point to point those out, as if they absolve us from responsibility for our own action.  Or perhaps we prefer keeping old injuries buried because they are too painful to face.  If we are to own up to our actions, there’s no room for blaming our victim or our perpetrator, even when they are one and the same. In the process of untangling these wounded-wounding patterns, we can’t escape looking at both.

Start by acknowledging your victimization with tender acceptance and compassion for self.  There is no blame for receiving injury.  One of the most injurious long term effects of child abuse is the shame that gets wired into a young person’s psyche.  If shame’s tentacles reach in unexpectedly and strangle your other feelings, set aside time to focus specifically on shame and the other feelings it crowds out.

Extending compassion to the one who hurt you may seem preposterous.  If this task is too great, simply ask God to be present with you in the recollection of the offense.  Be present to the compassion God has for you.  Then be present to the compassion God has for the one who hurt you.  Contemplate the unhealed wounds or the brokenness that led her to act in the hurtful way that she did.  Your intellectual understanding your offender’s failings does not make the offense is acceptable, but it can smooth raw emotional edges.  When satisfied with your intellectual understanding, set the injury aside for now.

Turn to the reactions.  Did I imitate the bad example of my offender, for lack of any other role model?  For example, did I imitate the physically violent relationship between my parents in my intimate relationships?  Do I try to exert control over those close to me? Or has my mechanism for coping with an overly controlling parent led me to retreat to “the cave” instead of offering an honest response to someone who didn’t mean harm?

Reactive choices include those that result not only from injury but also from some other weakness.  Was I so full of entitlement and resentment that I failed to experience or to express gratitude?  Did I miss opportunities because I was afraid and played it safe?  Did I choose ignorance over action?  Selective ignorance is no excuse, but it could explain a coping mechanism.  Similarly, poor self-control and preoccupation are not excuses, but they could explain what limited the choices available to me.

Join the conversation.  With more wisdom, internal reserve, self-control, or resilience, what better choices might have been within your reach?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Inner Inventory: 4 Types of Choices

As free will beings, everything we do is a matter of choice, whether conscious or not.  Gossip may be a conscious choice for one person who knows it’s harmful but an unconscious habit for another with less awareness.  Thus, we need an approach to introspection that gathers obvious choices and brings more subtle ones into our awareness.  This is the first of a 4-part series outlining a structured method for taking this kind of inner inventory.  The series will prompt those engaging in introspection to consider their choices in four categories:  active choices, reactive choices, passive choices, and non-choices.

The first type, active choices, are the obvious wrong choices we made when better alternatives were available and within reach.  Broken promises and commandments, intentional harm to someone (including intentional harm to self), missed opportunities because of laziness, and misused opportunities are examples.  I would include the early stages of an addiction, when I still had the power to make a choice and I chose the destructive path.  Serving my own needs and desires ahead of another’s in a way that left bruises belongs here, along with just about any willfulness that resulted in unfairness, disrespect or injury.

There is Jewish teaching, I believe from Medieval times and alert readers please correct me if I am mistaken about that, concerning the “evil tongue.”  A woman searching her conscience to make teshuvah in preparation for Yom Kippur confronted her gossip about a neighbor.  Struggling with how it was possible to make amends for her actions, she consulted the local rabbi, who told her to go home, to get a pillow, to go up to her roof, and to shake all the feathers out before returning to him.  Perplexed but full of remorse, she did as he instructed and watched the wind carry the feathers in seemingly all directions for miles and miles.  She went back to the rabbi and asked him what to do next.  He then told her that gathering up all the feathers would be easier than gathering up hurtful words carried by the evil tongue.

Our childhood choices may be less harmful, silly even, but if a memory stands out for you, capture it here.  Writing it down will free your conscience to move on with the inner inventory of less obvious wrongs.  For example, I would note that time I bombarded unsuspecting passersby with M&M’s from a balcony, regaled by the unexpectedness of it, because it revealed my 12 year old appetite for manipulation.  Harsh words and the evil tongue are an equal opportunity sin for all ages.  Childhood experiments with meanness may have been outgrown, but any memory that weighs on your conscience should be offered up here.

Whether you are approaching introspection with the intention of making a confession in a religious tradition or simply finding the course corrections you need as you embark on a new year, making detailed notes about your choices in these four categories will not only capture both the obvious and the elusive but also help you make a break from past patterns of choice.

Join the conversation.  Does the weight of past choices diminish the range of options available to you at present?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.