As I work with the next piece of Allan Savory’s holistic management model from his book, Holistic Management, I’m thinking about choice.
When I learned emotional intelligence, I understood choice as central to our personal power. The choice to say yes. The choice to say no. Our power to choose mindfully and intentionally is constantly under attack.
I also learned, to my chagrin, how much time and energy I had spent trying to change or fix what I have no power to change or fix and overlooking the places in which I do have power. I could not effectively make decisions until I learned to let go, stop arguing with what is, step away from where the blows land, and stop taking poisoned bait.
Reclaiming our ability and power to choose from our unconscious patterns and addictions is a difficult journey. Reclaiming our power of choice from those who have stolen it or seek to steal it is a journey into fear. Reclaiming our power of choice in spite of our fear is an exercise in heroism.
Once we have narrowed the whole we’re trying to manage to the dimensions in which we truly have power, we’re faced with learning how to make decisions and carrying them through.
The power of choice comes with responsibility. Some people don’t want to consciously choose because they don’t want to take responsibility for the outcomes they create with their choices. Another pattern I’ve often seen is the desire to have as many options as possible at all times – a recipe for noncommitment and a tactic that invariably steals power from others.
Choosing one option means we leave others behind. Choosing, and working with the consequences of our choices, requires flexibility, resilience, and the willingness to be wrong.
We will inevitably make choices that result in unwanted, unexpected results.
However, refusing to choose is still a choice. Inaction has consequences, just as action does.
If we don’t choose, someone else or circumstances will choose for us.
Is the goal of decision-making perfection or empowerment?
Is the right choice the one that gives us the outcome we want? Is the wrong choice the one that results in an outcome we didn’t foresee or dislike?
Some choices are easy, like which shirt to wear.
Some choices tear us apart, like being forced to choose between caring for ourselves and caring for someone we love.
Most of the choices we make in a day we never even notice.
Some choices change the direction of our lives and we never forget the moment we stood at a crossroad and made a decision.
We can’t necessarily tell the important choices from the unimportant ones when we’re faced with them.
The ability to choose is strength and power.
The ability to choose involves risk and uncertainty. No matter how well we gather information, weigh pros and cons, and try to imagine the future, choice is largely a leap in the dark. As we choose, so do those around us. Our choices impact them, and their choices impact us.
It’s absolutely impossible to predict where some choices will take us.
In Savory’s model, the holistic context directs decision-making. If we know something about where we are, and something about where we want to end up, we can build a path from here to there. Our choices are steps along the path, taking us forward. The cause and effect of choice is always uncertain and dynamic, so we can expect our path to fork, detour, double back, and otherwise confuse and confound us.
Choosing is a flow that never stops. Once we’ve decided to step into it, one choice leads to another, and another.
No one, no one can make better choices for us than we can.
Savory proposes a list of questions, called context checks, to help in decision-making:
Might this action have negative social, biological, or financial consequences?
Does this action provide the greatest return toward the goals for each unit of time or money invested?
Does this action contribute the most to covering the costs inherent in the endeavor?
Is the energy or money used in this action coming from the most appropriate source in our holistic context?
If we take this action, will it lead us toward or away from the future resource base described in our holistic context?
How do we feel about this action? Might it lead to the quality of life we defined in our holistic context? What might its adverse effects be?
These questions ask us to think beyond our immediate desires and consider the possible impact of our actions on others, now and into the future. They ask us for our best predictions, and to think carefully about our goals through the lens of sustainability.
The context checks are not a one and done exercise. Savory suggests they be revisited frequently, either at set intervals or in case of unexpected outcomes and events.
There will certainly be unexpected outcomes and events, as well as new information. Each choice we make teaches us something, and we (hopefully) integrate what we’ve learned into our next step.
Learning to make choices, and discerning the places in which we have no power to make choices, are two of the most essential things we can do in life. It seems to me the act of choosing is far more meaningful than whether we or others judge our decisions and their outcomes as “good” or “bad.”
Sadly, our culture seems more concerned at present with criticizing and/or eliminating the choices of others rather than developing and supporting good decision-making skills that foster personal power for everyone. Many of us spend too much time preoccupied with things we cannot change, actively disempowering ourselves and making ourselves miserable.
Making my own choices and learning from the consequences. My daily crime.
Possibly the most fruitless endeavor in the world.
Yet many of us consistently argue with how we are, how others are, and how the world is.
Arguing with what is is like living in an unending war. Clinging to a story inconsistent with what is requires constant vigilance. Our lives begin to revolve around the fear that the truth we refuse to acknowledge will escape or be exposed.
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We cannot allow that to happen, so we put all our energy into convincing ourselves that what is isn’t. Then we start trying to persuade others to validate our particular reality because God speaks to us, or we’re especially victimized, marginalized, enlightened, rich or powerful. If we can’t persuade others, we try to create and enforce rules requiring them to fall into line, to agree, at least tacitly, with our point of view and belief system. We scorn critical thinking, science and evidence-based data. We discourage questioning, careful definitions and nuances. We create jargon, acronyms, blacklists and smear campaigns. We enlist the sympathy, empathy, kindness and compassion of well-meaning but naïve people. We set up zero sum games, use gaslighting, violence, abuse, projection, deflection, sweeping and inaccurate generalizations and distortions. We hurt ourselves, and we hurt others.
Arguing with what is is a full-time job.
My particular version of arguing with what is takes place mostly in my head. For example:
I don’t feel loved.
What? How can you say that? Remember that one kiss at the beginning, the most passionate kiss of your life? You know you want that again! Think of how funny he can be, how charming, how much fun! If you don’t feel loved it’s because you’re not trying hard enough. You’re ungrateful. You’re disloyal. You’re a bad partner. You don’t deserve him. You want too much. You’re needy and demanding. Of course he loves you, he’s just not comfortable saying it! You are happy and loved. Get a grip!
I had this ding-dong conversation with myself for years. I desperately and repeatedly tried to convince myself I was both happy and loved, but I could never quite silence that deep internal voice that went right on saying, “I don’t feel loved.” It wouldn’t shut up. After years of this nonsense, I finally got so exhausted I stopped arguing with my true feelings and ended the relationship. Then, one day I came across narcsite dot com and immediately recognized the narcissist-empath dynamic.
You know what? I was right. I didn’t feel loved because I wasn’t, in fact, loved.
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Arguing with what is means fear and self-doubt are my constant companions.
So what’s the other side of the coin? What’s the fix for arguing with what is?
This magical phrase: However this needs to be, it’s okay with me.
Say it aloud: However this needs to be, it’s okay with me. Is it a lie? It usually is a lie for me when I first apply it to any given situation. I want things to be predictable, controlled and adhere to my expectations and standards. I expect that of myself, of others and of the world.
I haven’t had great luck with that expectation. The rebellious world is chaotic, unpredictable and unexpected. I’m not in charge of anyone but myself, and my feelings (along with the rest of me) are disobedient and refuse to be controlled.
My need for control and predictability are rooted in fear and lack of trust in myself. If, at any moment in any day, however things need to be is not okay with me, I know I’m dealing with fear or lack of self-trust, and those are both places where I have all the power. That instant refocus from avoiding, denying or refusing an inconvenient or unexpected truth or reality over which I have no power to the very center of my power clears away anxiety, confusion and fear. What happens in me, in a day, or in the world is not really the problem. The problem is in the way I manage my power and my choices. Addressing my own power and choices allows me to say, with perfect truth, that however this needs to be, it’s okay with me.
Being okay with the ways things are doesn’t mean endless love, light and turning the other cheek. It doesn’t mean I accept boundary violations, bullying, coercion, violence or any other kind of power-over games. It doesn’t mean I tip-toe through life pleasing others, following rules and keeping silent. It doesn’t mean toadying to the political correctness police. It doesn’t mean I feel no frustration or disappointment, or that the status quo should remain unchallenged and unchanged. It means clarity about where my power is.
Nobody wants a flat tire, herpes, an unwanted pregnancy, a cancer diagnosis, mental illness, the flu or to lose a loved one. We don’t want superstorms that wipe out our homes, the uncertainties and anxiety of climate change or food and water shortages. Nobody voted for lead in their drinking water, or to experience genocide. Nobody wants to be silenced, attacked, abused, marginalized, shot or scapegoated.
Yet all these things are. They’re real, along with many magical, wonderful things, and I can’t change the way things are.
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I can only change the way I am. I can decide when and how to speak. I can decide how I interact with others. I can listen, learn, research, ask questions, think critically and decide where I stand on important issues. I can speak up for those without voices. I can pay attention to my own integrity and operate within it. I can disengage, refuse to pick up poisoned bait, move away from where the blow is going to land (sometimes) and learn self-defense.
I can learn to trust my own courage, willingness to love, intelligence, feelings and ability to adjust and adapt to whatever happens. I can choose confidence and curiosity as companions.
I can make sure that however I need to be, it’s okay with me.
I can surrender to others in all their strengths and imperfections. Each one of us is however we need to be, sick or well, destroyer or hero, weak or strong, power-over or power-with. People in the world are okay with me, and I choose who I engage and connect with, who I support or hinder, who I share power with, who I collaborate and cooperate with and who I allow in my life.
However this minute, this hour, this day needs to be, it’s okay with me. If I catch the flu, it’s okay with me (Ugh). If I can’t get out of the icy driveway to go swimming, it’s okay with me (Rats!). If I reread the rough draft of this post and decide it needs to be rewritten before tomorrow when I post, it’s okay with me (what a pain in the neck!)
And so, after all, it was no use, That desperate determination to please. In the end a hidden, untamed thing Always looked out of my eyes, Beseeching for freedom, And none of us could beat it down.
Now all the rigid outlines of my life Have fallen around my feet in graceful folds. I’ve counted silver threads and lines And granted freedom. If there’s no lover for what I am I can kiss my own shoulders.
Last Friday I resigned from my medical transcription job. Shortly after emailing my letter of resignation to my supervisor, she called me, wanting to know why.
I told her the truth. I don’t feel as though my contribution matters. I don’t like the company culture of perfectionism and high stress. I don’t feel valued as an employee, and my skills and talents are worth more than I’m receiving.
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We parted in a friendly manner. She assured me I was eligible for re-hire any time and wished me well. I wished her and the rest of the team well. Cyber handshakes and smiles all around.
I’m in the middle of selling a property back in Colorado. I currently have wonderful renters in the house. They’ve been honest, cooperative, open and have done every single thing they’ve said they would do. They’ve become friends. I’m faxing paperwork, including the lease with these tenants, to Colorado and working with my Colorado real estate agent long distance. The agent expressed surprise that our rental agreement didn’t contain language about punitive consequences if the tenants suddenly decided to break the lease and leave.
It never entered my head to limit my tenants’ choice to leave if they were unhappy. Obviously, at least one property professional feels this is inappropriate business practice, but why would I want to force two people whom I respect and like to stay in a situation that wasn’t working for them?
Answer: I wouldn’t want to, I didn’t want to and I don’t want to.
Last evening I had a long conversation with one of my sons, and among the things we talked about was the idea of noticing how things are within ourselves and the choices we make about our own unhappiness and discomfort.
This morning, as I fried bacon and sausage and worked in the kitchen, I was thinking about this week’s post, trying to come up with something I wanted to write about from my current experience, and suddenly all these interactions lined up in my head (Clunk! Clunk! Clunk!) and I thought, well, there it is. I want to write about quitting.
What do you think of when you think of quitting?
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I think of the word “should,” as in should quit smoking, should quit drinking, should quit eating so much sugar, should quit fill-in-the-blank. These are the kind of circumstances under which quitting is supported and validated, but the “should” is an instrument of shame, guilt and fear, as well as a thoroughly ineffective motivator.
I was taught being a quitter or a dropper outer is a desperately mortifying thing. Quitting is associated with betrayal, abandonment, failure, letting others down and weakness.
Quitting is often an act of aggression. It’s what we do when we’ve hung on by our fingernails until they’ve torn out, one by one, and we have to let go or die. It’s hitting bottom. It’s burnout, breakdown and nothing left to lose, often accompanied by scenes, meltdowns and an exchange of insults.
Quitting is selfish and irresponsible. Choosing to be happy is an embarrassing thing to admit. We’re told If everyone did what made them happy, everything would unravel. Nobody would work. Important things wouldn’t get done. The economy would collapse.
There are cultural consequences for quitting. The label “quitter” impairs our ability to get hired, find stable relationships or make financial choices. A quitter is unreliable and untrustworthy at best. Someone who quits their marriage, family or children is so despicable as to be unforgiveable in some cases.
The word quit, according to a quick search, means to leave a place, resign from a job or stop or discontinue an activity. In short, it’s a word that defines a choice. Interestingly, one of its origins is Middle English, in which it means “set free.”
Set free sounds a lot more positive than quitting, doesn’t it?
It occurs to me that the whole idea of quitting is rooted in power. To quit is to stop. How is it that the culture is so unfriendly and unsupportive, for the most part, of making a choice to stop? Why are we so consistently and pervasively discouraged from saying no, from quitting, from changing?
I’ve written before about the yes and the no. To be in our full power, both consent and dissent have to be available to us. We have to be able to make a real choice. The inability to freely choose points to a power-over situation, and it doesn’t matter if it’s work related, relationship related, addiction related or some internal limitation like fear. Something or someone is interfering with our power to freely choose if we can’t make a choice to quit.
Said a different way, the problem is not so much the addictive substance, the miserable job, the narcissistic family member or the abusive romantic relationship. The problem is we’ve been systematically amputated from our full power to choose.
Sadly, this is a consequence, at least in part, of our current educational system in the United States. It doesn’t work for a lot of kids. It didn’t work for me. It didn’t work for my kids. I told my sons the same thing I was taught when they complained. Education is important. Everyone has to go to school. It’s the law. We all have to do things we don’t want to. Being happy doesn’t matter.
Ugh. I wish I hadn’t believed that. I wish I hadn’t said it, and more than anything I wish I’d listened to their distress and taught them to respond to it appropriately by responding to it appropriately myself. At the time, all I had was what I’d been taught, and I’m absolutely certain my own mother taught me the only thing she knew as well.
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The point is few of us learn how to respond to our discomfort or unhappiness, either by expressing it appropriately or taking action to help ourselves. Public education certainly doesn’t teach it. The way we work in this country doesn’t support it. Patriarchy in general doesn’t validate self-reflection, honest communication, or simply saying, “No more. This isn’t working for me. I’m stopping. I’m quitting.”
On the other hand, we’re great at demanding and commanding, as in “You should … You will … You must … You have to …” However, living in a cage of internalized and externalized shoulds is more power-over. When the shoulds have our power, we’re not free to choose. I know, because that’s how I’ve lived most of my life.
One of the hallmarks of power-over is its resistance to change. Change threatens the status quo. Traditional marriage vows are forever, no matter what. Many jobs reward length of service. We’re encouraged to grow up, settle down, get a stable life. Loyalty, dependability, reliability and predictability are all rooted in not changing.
But we do change. Our bodies change. Our needs and desires change. We learn new information. The things that captivate and delight us change. The best of us learn, grow, question, seek new experience, dance elegantly with challenge and tension, and develop a healthy relationship with being wrong. The best of us spend a lifetime making friends with our changing selves, investigating our motivations, our patterns, our behaviors and beliefs, our weaknesses and strengths, and doing battle with our fears and demons.
A relationship, job, priority or place may be a perfect fit at some point in our lives, and then be outgrown. A coping mechanism or response may work very well, even save our lives at one time, and cripple us at another. Life is always changing. The ability to flow with change, to welcome it and play with it, responding with free choice after free choice, defines a well-lived, powerful, elegant life
Quitting, like boredom, has a bad reputation. I suspect this is mostly due to a cultural smear campaign. My son is in his 20s, and as he shared parts of his experience with me, I realized we’ve arrived at the same place, he’s just 30 years ahead of his late-blooming mother. He’s reclaiming his power to respond to his own discomfort and distress and choose what to do, based on prior choices and how they worked out. He’s not waiting until he can no longer bear his unhappiness. He’s not quitting in a blaze of hand grenades and gunfire. He’s not self-destructing. He’s allowing himself to stop, to change, to leave. He’s setting himself free of what doesn’t work for him, and he’s doing it without guilt or shame or the need for outside validation.
Quitting is an art. I can be done with respect, gratitude and dignity. It can be a gift of love and authenticity to self and others. The right person for a job, place or activity is not someone who hates the job, place or activity. The right job, place or activity for us is not the one that makes us unhappy. Commitment, responsibility and keeping our word are all important things, but not unto death. Not unto madness and broken-down health. We are allowed to set ourselves free. We are allowed to change. We are allowed to learn. We are allowed to try and fail and move on.
I began this project of blogging with a letter of resignation. This week I sent another letter of resignation. In both cases, I hung on long after I knew I was miserable because I was afraid to make a change. I have more work to do in building trust with myself, but I’ve made a start.
This week’s post is suspended between two stories. The first one is the old Greek myth of Sisyphus.
Sisyphus was a crafty and deceitful king who craved complete power. In his pursuit of power, he offended many men and gods and was eventually punished by being sent to the underworld and forced to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill. The boulder was enchanted, however, to roll back down the hill (over Sisyphus, in some versions) just before it reached the top. Thus, Sisyphus was doomed to repeat the same unending and futile task forever.
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Sisyphus has captured the imagination of many writers, philosophers and artists, and there are several variations and interpretations of his story. If you’re interested, you can follow the link to to Wiki and read more.
Sisyphus is on my mind this week, not only because his story suggests to me the inevitability of rising and falling cycles, but also because his punishment was to forever try and fail.
His punishment was to forever try.
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I’m a product of a culture that taught me certain core truths about life. One has a responsibility to help others. Everyone has to do things they don’t want to do. One must never give up. One must try one’s best. We’re all in a train behind a little engine that puffs, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” and that’s the right place to be, the admirable, ethical, moral, adult, acceptable, responsible, side-of-the-angels place to be. Good people try and try and try. They don’t despair, they don’t give up and they don’t say it’s too hard, I can’t or, most unforgiveable of all — I won’t.
The truth is one of the things I least like about myself is that I can always be counted on to try my best. I don’t mean work hard. I mean try hard. Trying is certainly hard work. It’s sucked up most of my life in terms of time and energy. A lifetime of trying, though, has produced less of value to me, and I suspect to others, than an hour of work at writing, dancing, gardening, making love, playing with a child or even scrubbing the kitchen floor.
In the last ten days, I’ve been living right alongside Sisyphus. In the last ten days, I’ve meticulously gone through headlines, articles, links, petitions, news and requests for action in my email, not once but two or three times a day, because I want to help. I want to do something that matters. I want to make a difference. In the last ten days, I’ve intentionally and consciously been present, engaged, interactive, interested in what my partner is thinking and talking about, which has been largely political news, because I want to be a good partner. I want to demonstrate I’m brave and strong and intelligent enough to be part of the conversation going on in the world.
In the last ten days, I’ve privately and quietly despaired, lost sleep, felt inadequate, lost my center, lost my peace, felt gnawing anxiety and been deeply ashamed of who I am.
I’ve tried so hard.
I’ve failed so hard.
It’s not working. I can’t live like this. I’ve been pushing that rock up the hill as bravely as I can, but it just keeps rolling back down. I’m exhausted, bruised, battered, my fingernails are torn and I’m quickly losing any desire to be engaged with life.
However, oddly, one thing is working.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to a self-defense class at a local community center. The activities director happened to be there, and on an impulse I introduced myself and asked him if he’d be interested in working with me to start a community dance group. We fell into conversation, one thing led to another and as I write this, advertising is in process, flyers are getting printed, and somehow, I’m scheduled to start up a dance group in March, a thing I’ve long wanted to do in order the create the kind of healthy, inclusive community I’m starving for.
I didn’t try at all. It just kind of happened and I went along for the ride. I’ve spent hours and hours building dance playlists, but that wasn’t trying. I wanted to do it. I loved doing it. Music instead of current news? Lead me to it!
So what is it with this trying thing that’s driven so much of my life? I can’t remember a single time trying hard resulted in an outcome I wanted. It seems to me whatever happens, happens. Things always and inevitably turn out the way they turn out. I may have occasionally bought some time. I may have kept things glued together with my frantic trying longer than they would have otherwise, but was that a good thing, or in the end did I just make the cost higher for myself and everyone else?
All the really good things I can remember in my life just happened. I didn’t plot, plan, manipulate, force or otherwise try. I was simply living my life.
And what about the punishment piece? Sisyphus, by all accounts, was not a nice man, and I don’t waste much pity on him, but what about me? Endless, futile trying certainly feels like a punishment. Why have I always accepted that? Why haven’t I been able to choose to stop?
The truth is I try so hard because I feel like I have to make up for what a difficult, noncompliant, hypersensitive, disappointing, needy, dramatic, sensual person I am. I know I’ll never please or get it right, so all I have is knowing I tried as hard as I could. The world is filled with talented, creative, loving, generous, kind people. They don’t have to try to make the world a better place. The world is a better place because they live in it.
I’m not like them. I’m broken.
It’s not like I can just not try to make up for being broken!
If I don’t try, then what is there?
Which leads me to the second story, which I can’t find this morning, but I know is here somewhere in my library!
A student approached the master and said, “I work with disabled children and their families. Master, there’s so much difficulty for these people! I want to help, to make things better for them! What should I do? How can I best relieve their suffering?”