Making choices and commitments is part of life: even when we think we’ve avoided making a decision, that in itself is a choice. But is ‘choosing not to make a choice’ really the best way to approach life?
I was listening to an old favourite the other day — the album Against the Wind, by Bob Seger — and some lines from one of the songs have stuck with me ever since; not in the annoying sense of a jingle replaying over and over, but in the sense of how apt they are in describing some aspects of the human condition. The song is No Man’s Land, and the lyrics tell of responses to a tragedy:
Victims come and victims go
There’s always lots to spare
One victim lives the tragedy, one victim stops to stare
Still another walks on by, pretending not to see
They’re all out there in no man’s land
‘Cause it’s the safest place to be
There are so many ways to ‘read’ this song; the idea that we are all in a sense ‘victims’, but victims of what? The idea of no man’s land being safe, but safe from what? The idea implicit in no man’s land of shying away from commitment, playing safe, not getting involved.
I find myself thinking about the recent troubles in Libya, Egypt and Bahrain. Regardless of the view you take toward systems of government like these, the people who are protesting in the streets against their rulers have well and truly committed themselves to a course of action that could, in reality, lead to injury or death to themselves and others, just as much as it could lead to the change in leadership or the system of government they seek. In the sense of “no man’s land” being the “safest place to be”, they are very far away from that. Some of them may well end up as victims of these troubles, but for some at least that would be a price they choose to pay in order to secure a better future. They have committed themselves to something.
Which isn’t to say that committing oneself to a particular course of action is necessarily a good thing. We can all come up with plenty of examples of causes with which we fundamentally disagree and wish had never attracted anyone to their rallying cry. As the saying goes, “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist”. A lot depends on one’s point of view.
But walking on by is also a choice. In Germany during the Nazi era, hundreds of thousands of people “walked on by, pretending not to see”, while millions of others “lived the tragedy” of the Holocaust. Far be it from me to suggest that those who turned a blind eye to what was going on were as much ‘victims’ of the Nazis as were the people who died in the death camps, but I do think that those who walked on by were victims in a sense of the Nazis’ dehumanising of the German people as a whole; those who committed themselves to not seeing were diminished in their humanity.
But then doesn’t it come down to personal choice? Choosing which course of action — or none — to take? Because actually, choosing to take no action is a still a choice, still a commitment to one thing or another. On the other hand, freedom of choice is not always as straightforward as it might seem. If you’re a poor farmer eking out a living in a war-torn part of the developing world, your choices are severely limited by the sheer effort involved in getting enough money to feed, clothe and shelter your family; there’s not much left over for being involved in grand political causes, especially if the price of involvement could be death or injury at the hands of others and, consequently, further hardship for those who depended on you.
There’s another lyric that’s playing in my head as I write this: “Put up a fight you believe to be right, And some day the sun will shine through”, from the song Wishing Well, by Free. Of course it’s not always that simple; some fights are never won, however ‘right’ and ‘just’ the cause. And maybe the “sun shining through” is not about victory necessarily but also more generally about finding ways through, finding meaning in one’s life, allowing some things to pass and others to take their place — choosing how to think about things and therefore what meaning to give them. The psychotherapist Victor E. Frankl, who was himself incarcerated by the Nazis during World War Two, wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?):
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
What I’m trying to suggest, I think, is the value of being conscious and aware of the choices and commitments that we make; knowingly choosing to commit to a course of action, or none, rather than stumbling blindly into it, oblivious to the potential risks and rewards. We then have a better chance of finding positive and self-affirming meaning in our lives and becoming masters of our paths through it.
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