We all yearn to live fully, to express our deepest intention, because we know that this is what gives meaning to our lives. How can we do this? We must learn to live consciously–in other words, we must learn how to choose.
In spite of the fact that there are things we cannot change, we still do have the possibility to choose consciously. This capacity to choose, no matter how limited it may seem to us, is what makes possible the progress of a society and the unfolding of an individual.
Of course, there are aspects of life that we cannot change, the past, for example. We can't even change our own past, much less that of humankind, and we cannot change any of its consequences. The best we can do with the past is accept it, since only by accepting it can we understand our own history and, more importantly, the moment we are living now.
The future, however, seems to be a new and unknown arena. Although we can speculate about it to a certain extent, we can never be sure what will happen. Our area of work is the present. The only way of having some positive control over our future is through our wise decisions in the present. Let us examine that margin we all have for altering the course of events, our capacity for consciously changing the direction of our lives by learning how to choose.
The most fundamental choice a person makes is what to do with his or her life. This choice is made not only with regard to how to earn a living. There is a deeper choice than the choice of a profession–one that affects all our decisions. It is the choice of the level on which to live. That level implies how we will live, it determines the meaning we give to our efforts and our successes. This decision touches every part of our lives and shapes the rest of our choices.
The world one chooses to live in depends on the meaning one gives to one's life. A person who is only interested in himself chooses to be the center of the world. Since in practice this is not possible, he limits his life to the circle of his interests. The rest is only the scenery he can look at, if and when he feels like it. A person who chooses a larger circle has interests encompassing a broader area. Some people choose universal ideals which include all human beings. Moreover, when one chooses the meaning of one's life, one is also choosing the meaning and the scope of one's struggles and achievements.
Once a person's fundamental choice has been made, he enters another level of choice. He has to choose the steps he will take to fulfill his ideal. The person who chooses a profession decides how and where she will be trained. The artist decides how he will fit himself for his work. The technician decides the skill she wishes to acquire and how she will acquire it. These decisions are not less important because they are secondary. They show us up to what point the person is willing to follow the course he has chosen.
Each choice has its consequences and is a limitation. The consequences of one's decisions are usually easy to foresee. The person who chooses a professional career knows beforehand that several years of her life will be committed to study or to specialized work. The artist doesn't choose just the road to fame; he knows very well the effort that choice of life will demand of him. He knows not only that his chances for triumph are slim, but also that very likely he will never triumph.
When someone chooses something, she also chooses everything that choice implies. If I decide to buy something expensive, I cannot complain that it costs too much. If I spend my money on luxuries, I cannot complain that I don't have enough to buy food. Yet not everyone accepts this obvious fact. The person who chooses a selfish life doesn't always understand the consequences of that choice and often complains about the very thing she has chosen. She doesn't want to recognize that someone who doesn't care about others cannot expect others to care about her. She chooses what she wants, but rejects what it implies. She resists accepting that life has pleasant and unpleasant aspects and that it is impossible to separate them.
When one wants to have a home, one is, at the same time, choosing sharing, tolerance and acceptance of responsibilities one hasn't had before. When one chooses to have children, one is also choosing to nurture and educate them. One cannot be happy about having a child and then reject the work of caring for him. One cannot have one thing without the other. If someone is able to keep only what he wants and to get rid of what he doesn't, he is forcing others to carry the burden that is really his. This is also a choice and has consequences he cannot evade, even if he doesn't like them.
Every time we choose, we limit ourselves. This is impossible to avoid. To choose is precisely that: to elect one option among several. Sometimes we don't want to choose in order not to limit ourselves. But if we don't choose, we don't fulfill our goal. To be able to fulfill something, we need to concentrate our efforts. Even though we might be able to fulfill several objectives at the same time, we would never be able to fulfill all the possibilities we have.
We can never stop limiting ourselves because we cannot avoid deciding–even when we have not intended to make a decision. Not to choose is to decide to wait, to let time go by. This means that we are limiting ourselves by not channeling our efforts into something determined, something we would like to fulfill. Among our various options we make that choice not to choose. To limit ourselves is counterproductive when it reduces our capacity to understand and participate. But when we limit ourselves voluntarily, it makes us conscious of what we are doing, conscious of the responsibilities we assume and the meaning of our efforts and achievements.
Each choice we make determines our future possibilities. A traveler in New York can choose to go to Paris or to Hawaii. If she chooses to go to Paris, she can make a stopover in London. If she chooses to go to Hawaii, she can make a stopover in Los Angeles. Each choice establishes a course of action, and within each course of action there are certain possibilities. It is important to know, each time we choose, what possibilities we have from then on, and which options we are giving up in order to fulfill our desires.
Every time a person completes a stage, he encounters new possibilities. While a student is in high school he appears to have many options, but in fact he has just two fundamental ones: to finish high school or not. While he is still in school he can think about all he will be able to do when he graduates, but it is only after he completes his studies that he has the real option of going to college. New possibilities appear after the conclusion of a stage.
If we make a habit of choosing consciously and are aware of the stage we are going through, we have greater strength to fulfill our objectives without wasting time. We know beforehand the path we will follow, the responsibilities we will assume, the work we will begin and the obstacles we will have to overcome. But when we don't choose consciously, we simply drift–perhaps into danger. A person wandering on a mountain in the dark may come to the edge of the cliff without realizing it. The best he can hope for is to escape with his life and reach safe ground. That is, to get back safely to his starting point. Conscious choices help us to avoid not only wasting time but also suffering unnecessarily.
In addition to the choice of our ideal and the means to fulfill it, there are the countless decisions we make, every moment of each day. What mood will we be in today? How will we relate to others? What tasks will we do and how will we perform them? Though we may not be aware of it, the sum of the small decisions marks the path we will follow throughout the day, just as the wake behind the boat indicates in what direction it is headed.
Sometimes a person is surprised upon arriving at a particular place because it isn't the one he thought he had chosen. However, it really was the place he was choosing when he made all his little decisions, the ones that seemed unimportant and which he didn't associate with his ideal. Let's take the example of a father who almost never spends time with his son. Whenever he has the opportunity, he chooses something else, without seeing what he is doing: he goes out with his friends, watches television, or takes a well-deserved nap. As time goes by, the father-son relationship becomes increasingly distant. Finally the father realizes that his son is like a stranger to him. Although he had always wanted to have the best possible relationship with his son, the little decisions he made every day produced a very different and unexpected result.
Although one's ideal is chosen once and forever, it is fulfilled at every moment. When we understand this, we become more and more conscious of our choices until the time comes when we are aware of all the choices we make and their consequences. To live consciously, then, is to choose intentionally the way we live all the time–the moments of great decisions and those of small, apparently insignificant ones. As we establish the habit of choosing consciously, we become better able to fulfill the fundamental intention of our lives.