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how you got here

July 25, 2021

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we’ve gotten to where we are.

I’ve spent the last week at a somewhat spontaneous family reunion. Uncles, aunts, cousins… relatives I haven’t seen in years.

At moments, I let myself be the observer more than the participant (an occupational hazard of being a researcher). I heard stories and life advice. I heard jokes. I heard recipes for favorite dishes.

As I watched and listened, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how my family members – all from the same family of origin – ended up in such different places. Different spouses and children. Different careers and friends. Different life experiences, perspectives, and personalities.

This past week, I heard more than one person say, “It is what it is,” or “That’s life.” These are common expressions. I've heard them said by many people.

Things are in fact what they are, and not what we want them to be, so I get the first expression. And yes, life is challenging, and full of ups and downs, so I get the second expression. But these expressions also seem to suggest that our experiences happen to us. As if there we are, going along, and suddenly life stuff happens, and then we have to somehow deal, and that’s just the way it is.

Except that’s not the way it is.

“Life” happens in large part because of human agency. As people make choices, those choices shape our destinies, and in doing so, they shape our lives. I ended up where I am in my career in in large part because, after getting a law degree, I decided not to practice law. I am where I am in my romantic life largely because, at a critical early moment in my relationship with my ex-husband, I chose to commit to making it work rather than walking away.

We all make our choices, and each choice takes us on a unique path. No path is necessarily better than another. They're just... different.

But our choices are also constrained. We can’t do whatever we want. Other people around us make choices that impact ours, limiting our options or making the best options very costly. Sometimes people focus on their own needs, and when their needs clash with ours, we’re forced into a hard choice. Someone close to us might threaten to respond in a negative way if we choose a particular option, or they may make certain options unavailable to us.

We have choices, and those choices land us where we are. But our choices are constrained, and those constraints also land us where we are.

Some constraints we don't see until they smack us in the face after we've made a decision.

Some constraints we internalize: we believe they're there when they've been long gone. These beliefs become psychological traps, telling us we can't do things we actually can.

Some people choose to ignore constraints. They do what they want, despite how constraining their choices become to those around them.

I guess the best we can all do is make choices that result in fewer constraints for ourselves in the future, so that over time we are better able to choose what works best, rather than feel under the spell of “life” being “what it is.”

We could also be sensitive to how much our choices might constrain others in a negative way, keeping them from a better life.

None of what I’m saying is revolutionary. But when you sit back at a family reunion, paying attention to everyone's unique personalities and histories… if you think about how the choices of some constrain the choices of others, and how people choose given the constraints they have… for a brief moment it all comes together. It’s as though the formula of life suddenly comes into focus.

And if you let it, it can really blow your mind.

That is all.

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