Tag Archives: choice

The Weight Of A Thousand Ghosts

When I became the lead opinion writer for my college newspaper, my father suggested I call my column “The Road Not Taken” after one of his favorite Robert Frost poems. I thought about it but went in a different direction, choosing instead a title of my own: “Free Association.”

Five years later I instructed the cemetery director to add these lines to my father’s headstone:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by”.

I read recently that Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” with his friend Edward Thomas in mind. After an initial reading, Thomas thought that Frost, through the speaker in the poem, was lamenting the uncertain nature of making choices, suggesting his life would have played out differently if he had traveled a different road. Actually, Frost was poking fun at Thomas, who frequently complained about the routes they took on walks through the woods. Unaware of this backstory, many readers believe Frost is arguing in favor of the road not taken, praising independent spirits for forging their own paths.

We can’t imagine a life we didn’t lead—we only know the road we’ve taken, the one we’re on right now.

Wherever he went, my father didn’t travel lightly. He carried in his chest the weight of a thousand ghosts.

Naturally I inherited his nerves. I was hurting so bad after college I decided one day to disappear. Medicine works best in small doses. But it’s easy, when you think about it, to fit a bottle in your mouth.

There is no magic pill, I’ve learned, no invisible ink for writing goodbye. Once you’re born, you’re in the thick of things. Even suicide, Sartre reminds us, is an act of being in the world.

There were signs we missed, being caught up in our moods. I shared a poem with him once about my life being an arduous climb up a mountain that extends higher and higher with each step, death a slip within reach.

Our only hope is to keep climbing, he said, without looking down. “This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.”

These are the pictures I paint of him in poems, stories and songs. There’s an art to reproducing one’s father, recasting his shadows, repeating his sins.

Fate is genetic; it comes before and after us. Faith requires both a leap and a precipice.

It’s easy to get lost in the woods.

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Friendly Confines

My dad liked to say that in life people are free to choose their own confinements. He chose to become a teacher and found himself confined to the classroom. He chose to become a father and when I arrived he built a life based around my mother and me.

I say that our confinements help us appreciate the limited amount of freedom we have. By becoming a teacher my dad was not a librarian or a fireman or starting first baseman for the Chicago Cubs. The classroom became his world. He was bound by district rules, standardized tests, report cards and textbooks. But he had the freedom to teach Hamlet or the five-paragraph essay as he saw fit. He encouraged students to follow their passions, even though as teens many thought little of the future.

I’ve heard a theory that the major events of our lives happen no matter the daily individual choices we make. My dad was in a way destined to teach—maybe not in Chicago, maybe not English—but still a teacher. Even after his initial dream of becoming a minister wasn’t realized, he wanted to help people—lifting their spirits, nourishing their minds. Minister or teacher—he was in the same ballpark.

Oftentimes we try too hard to force the action in our lives. We push for things we think we want, only to see them escape our grasp. Then there are those opportunities we never considered, appearing out of nowhere.

There’s power in submitting to the possibility that my life follows some kind of destiny. Accepting the will of the universe and learning to live with myself? How freeing.

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The Other Me

I’ve enjoyed the new series The Affair on Showtime the last few weeks. A married man named Noah meets a married woman named Alison, they fall for each other, someone connected to them dies (is murdered?) and they’re each being questioned by police at some point (years?) after the summer they met.

In episode 2 Noah introduces an intriguing concept. He’s speaking to Alison about his favorite physics theory from college. If you could go back to one point in your life and make a different choice, and you did, how might this alter the life you currently lead?

We’ve encountered such thoughts on this blog before. But Noah adds a twist: What if there’s a parallel world in which another version of you exists, the one who made a different choice at a crucial moment? What if there’s an Other Me on another Earth living his life (mine?) in a different way?

Of course Noah says this in the context of his budding relationship with Alison. He’s trying to picture one world in which he meets his wife in college, marries her right after graduation, and they build a life with their four kids (his “actual” life right now). But he’s tempted by the thought of leaving all that behind for Alison. Can both desires—one for family, the other for a fling—exist simultaneously?

I’m fascinated with the intricacies of choice-making. Our freedom to choose—whether it be from what to eat for lunch or what profession to pursue—is empowering, but it also exposes our vulnerabilities. On the edge of a cliff, one false step means disaster, one right move and you’re still on your feet.

As always, I’m left with a series of questions. What choices would I change if I could? Shouldn’t I simply accept every choice I’ve made? I’m always hearing how I have only this life and nothing more, and yet I find myself choosing to write about parallel worlds and other lives I might have led.

Wherever I end up, there will be moments of suffering and moments of joy. If he’s out there, does the Other Me think the same way? Does he wonder how my life is going?

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A Real Page Turner

I remember from my childhood reading the Choose Your Own Adventure series. Instead of going in order from the first chapter to the last you could pick up a CYOA book and head in numerous directions.

On page 5, for example, you’d be presented with options: If you wanted to scale the mountain to avoid the bear, go to page 27; if you wanted to run into the forest away from the bear, turn to page 39, etc. Each choice led to another series of choices. Multiple outcomes existed; there was no straight line.

My life is its own Choose Your Own Adventure. I enter every day a world created by an Author other than myself. Options abound but no clear path presents itself. There’s always a bear to contend with.

I choose blindly. Sure, I can weigh options and consider where each might lead, but I’m deceiving myself if I presume to know what the future holds.

Sometimes I flirt with the idea of closing the book entirely. What’s the point in picking one path over another when all contain obstacles I might not overcome?

But then I gather myself. I believe in the promise of the story. I want to see how it ends, this book I’ve devoted my life to. My fingerprints smudge the corners, each page retains my trace. Choosing has no easy answers, but not choosing is out of the question.

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An Absurd Proposition

I find myself returning to Nietzsche’s thoughts on eternal recurrence. Time is cyclical, not linear, the theory goes. You have lived this life many times before and will live the same life over and over into infinity. But it’s not just your life: every intimate detail of the universe plays back on a loop, the same record with the same grooves.

This sounds both tragic and glorious. Horrific and divine. If you’re seeking comfort, I say live today like it’s the first time you’ve lived, as if this is your original life, such that you will it to happen unchanged forever.

Every day is significant because it returns to you and you to it, but—pop a Prozac—this may be the twentieth or two-millionth time you’ve lived this life and there’s no changing things. Actually there is no “original life,” no counting incarnations, no beginning to begin with.

It’s an impossible thought. An absurd proposition. A blog I’ve written many times before and will come back to again and again.

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All Too Human

Unique

I am unique. No one with this particular body or this particular mind will appear again in the future to live my life exactly as I do now. This is a comforting thought. I have value, I meaning something. Everything I encounter retains my trace. When I leave the house, part of me remains at home. People may wish me harm or curse my name, but no one steals my personhood.

Insignificance

But if I’m unique so are you. I’m a single soul in a world of billions. A raindrop in a tsunami. This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try, but whatever I do, in the context of human history, leaves no discernible mark. A slight change in my DNA and I’d be someone else. In my self-awareness I recognize the contingency of my being and recall the nothingness from which my mind emerged.

Unique Insignificance

The human condition is rooted in contradictions and ambiguities. We know life’s a struggle and our only option is to fight. Your battle is yours alone. But it plays out alongside mine. I’m no better at resisting than you. We make up the world, but the world doesn’t need us to continue. We are tragic miracles, gone before our time has come.

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One-Person Play

I recently finished Toward a Philosophy of the Act by Russian philosopher M.M. Bakhtin. The essay affected me deeply as I continue undergoing some major life changes.

Bakhtin argues that the purest measure of my life is found in the actions I take. Life is always coming at me; it’s full of numerous possibilities. From moment-to-moment, day-to-day, year-to-year, etc., I must acknowledge my uniqueness in Being and then actualize my potential through the actions I perform.

But nothing tells me how I should live my life. There is no “out-there” to guide my actions. Any concept of morality or “man must do this” maxim means little to me as a unique being. It’s an abstraction that leads only to confusion and doesn’t guarantee my cooperation or ensure that I’ll derive a sense of purpose if I follow the Rules.

Instead of looking for help from the universe or other outside forces, I must realize that I have “no alibi in Being.” This means that I owe it to myself to make something of my life by continually acting out my potential. No one can make my life for me but me. And I can’t compel you to make your life for you.

It’s some pretty heady stuff that at its core seems so natural to me. I have only myself to praise or blame for how my life unfolds. There’s freedom in knowing this, even while remembering that as long as I’m alive there is no escape from Being. Not choosing (or the illusion of it) is a choice in itself.

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