On choices and being chosen

As residents of America, we are constantly bombarded with the idea that the content of our characters is determined by the choices we make. We are told we choose our lives and the elements in them as we choose our laundry detergents or cars; they’re all there just waiting for us, and all we have to do is choose the proper ones to be correct in the eyes of society. This idea works if we believe that all of us will eventually come to be offered the same choices; we will all be born to the right socio-economic group, we will all have the same level of health, we will all have access to the right schools, jobs and partners.

This idea doesn’t seem to make much sense, however, when we face something we did not choose which shifts our lives onto another path, perhaps one which is not socially acceptable or politically correct. Ask those who have suffered illnesses or disabilities which keeps them under-schooled or under-employed. Ask those whose companies have folded or laid them off. To them, life is not so much a matter of choice but of survival, in which they must also bear the burden of the whole mess somehow being their fault. Surely they knew the risks of being born into a genetic pool which includes cancer; surely, they knew that a company making a billion one year can fail the next. If they had only made the right choices somewhere along the line, they could have saved themselves.

Those of us who have had a portion of our lives, or our entire lives, chosen for us by unforeseen circumstances know that the burden of choice, the idea that we make all our own future, is a crock. Those of us who still believe that they can outrun that heart attack or eat their way into a cancer-free existence are working on hope but not much else, that is, until they experience the shock of discovery that we do not always get to choose.

This set of insights has haunted me since I began working on my thesis, which is about a group of women who offered themselves as substitutes for others persecuted and killed for their faith during the French Revolution. The women in question did choose to offer themselves, but only after they felt they had no alternative but to follow the ways of their own faith. In doing so, they found a kind of release and joy which is very difficult for modern people to understand, especially those who believe that faith itself is a crock.

The research and writing were coming along smoothly, and then to my delight I discovered that the Portland Opera Association had scheduled a production of “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” which is based on the experience of the women about whom I had been writing. I’ve been honored to be able to help out in small ways, such as delivering lectures to schools and other groups about the history behind the opera, and talking about the events with association staff and performers. That once-smooth writing and research path has knotted up considerably as a result, because each conversation and lecture has brought me further insight into what happens when one acts out of conviction, whether by choice or because one cannot conceive of any other alternative.

To one group of educators, the women did not really make any choices whatsoever. They merely followed the call which had been set for them by their training, experience and understanding of the teachings of their faith. To another group, the women were acting like gang members, pledging themselves to lay down their lives for others in the gang. But some of the greatest insights have come from children, whom one would expect would have the lowest defenses to the life-is-always-choice school of consumerism we experience here. One nine-year-old informed me that she understood that the women believed in something which was bigger than themselves, and so they wanted to go be with it.

As students we find ourselves faced with daily choices which can turn out to be the right or wrong ones in the long run, 20 years down the road when we discover we took up a certain major or missed a certain deadline. If we think we’re going to be in complete control of our lives 20 years from now, based upon what are sometimes merely arbitrary choices now, we’ll have a lot to learn in that intervening gap of time. What I’ve learned from the women about whom I write and lecture is that their conscious acceptance of what they controlled and what they did not was neither black nor white. They did come to form their character partially by choice, but also by their response to that for which they were chosen.

To learn more about your choices, and about what you would do if you were chosen to do something larger than yourself, I urge you to see the Portland Opera’s production of “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” Students can buy tickets to the dress rehearsal held on March 22 at 7:00 p.m. for just $10. Send a check or money order to Portland Opera, Attention: Student Dress Rehearsal, 1515 S.W. Morrison, Portland OR 97201, www.portlandopera.org. The deadline for the opera to receive your order is March 12.