Last week, I published a post on how the pursuit of our educational goals and our increased choices in finding a potential spouse are delaying marriage within the Indian-American culture. Today, I am going to focus on this idea of increased choice. In a context-less world, our choices are our own to make, completely free from all limitations, restraints and external influences. But, as we all know, reality doesn’t work that way! In the real world, our choices are affected by a countless number of things or factors.
Broadly speaking these influencing factors or pressures can be categorized into 3 levels – global/universal factors that affect humans around the world similarly, group-level factors that have different effects on different groups of people, and, individual level attributes that have varied effects on all of us. Across all levels, these various forces acting on our lives affect each other and intermingle. As a result, not only do they affect the choices and options available to us, they also influence the degree to which we are able to make right positive choices that enable our growth as people. At the end of the day, our choices are still ultimately our own. However, a lot of us don’t even think about the innumerable ways in which our choices are subtly and not so subtly influenced. Because of this, we don’t realize the true power and impact of the choices we make.
So, let’s look at all the different ways in which our choices are restricted, limited and influenced in our lives.
GLOBAL/UNIVERSAL PRESSURES ON OUR CHOICES
Our biology and genes (our physical makeup and health) determine the direction of our life choices.
All of us are biologically born either as a male, a female, or both, or neither. This already determines the type of choices available to us, for the rest of our lives. For instance, all of us have to deal with our own mortality and life expectancy. We have a limited amount of time to accomplish everything we want in life. Added to this, we also have a layer of biological and health limitations, which influence the choices we make. For instance, men can produce sperm all the way from puberty to death. They have most of their lives to become parents if they choose to do so, giving them a great deal of freedom in prioritizing parenthood in their lives. Women however, are bound by a “biological clock” because they can only reproduce from puberty to menopause, roughly a 35-40 year time span. This drastically reduces the time they have to make decisions about becoming parents. This added pressure influences their choices in dramatic ways.
Similarly, we have no choice over our genetic makeup, our skin color, or the families that we are born into. We don’t choose who our parents are, just as much as they don’t choose us to be their kids. All of these things, in one way or another, determine the choices that are available to us. So, the choices we have in our lives are all only practical within our biological, genetic and health parameters.
Our geographical location dictates survival choices.
Our physical surroundings have a great amount influence on the options and choices that are available to us in our lives. Historically, our surroundings determined the resources that were available to us in our immediate environments, and dictated the actions we take to use these resources.
For example, West Virginia came to be called the “coal country” precisely because of its abundance of coal in the past, which led to the establishment of cities and settlements around it. It also meant that most people living in that area became miners, a fact that is still mostly true to this day.
Our geography also determines the languages we speak, who our neighbors are, who our friends and allies are, and who we feel most comfortable with in interactions. If you are the child of immigrants, think about how many cultures they might have been exposed to before they decided to move. Most likely, they were only exposed to their own culture, unless they were already well-traveled before they migrated. So, when they came to their new countries, they probably gravitated towards neighborhoods and locations which have other families from their culture. You most likely grew up being friends, or at least being acquainted, with these families.
GROUP LEVEL PRESSURES ON OUR CHOICES
Our culture and/or religion influence the morality of our choices.
Cultural values and religious doctrines are two of the biggest group-level influences on our choices. The religion we are raised in and choose to follow has a tremendous impact on our ideas of right or wrong, on our place and purpose in life, and on the consequences of our actions in an after-life. For people who are religious, these beliefs may affect almost every critical choice they make in the course of their lifetimes. For those who aren’t religious, the fact that they aren’t dictates the nature of the choices they make. Our religions and cultures decide how our lifestyles are going to be, and what values we are going to learn and pass on to our next generations. Any choices that people make in these cultures fall within the limits set by that culture’s definition of right and wrong.
Our societal structures impose sociocultural norms on choices.
As a social group, the collective population in a society decides what “normal” choices are, and how to express these choices. Sometimes, society may also have penalties and harsh punishments for deviating from these “normal” choices.
Imagine seeing two men who are holding hands, walking down the streets of almost any city in the United States. They would instantly be labeled as “gay”, and in some places may be ridiculed, harassed or even assaulted. Yet, in India, this is how heterosexual friends express their personal connection with each other. (This doesn’t mean that the Indian society accepts homosexuality. In fact, it is explicitly repressed in many ways. But that’s a totally different post!)
Societies around the world influence people’s educational options, their social status in their communities, whether people are allowed to fall in love and get married, whether people are able to own property, and even whether their citizens are permitted to have what we think are basic and inalienable human rights. The society that we live in drastically affects the choices we can make and alters the directions of our actions in profound ways.
Our educational practices determine the knowledge of the choices available to us.
Theoretically, education is supposed to be the purest and most surefire way to wisdom and enlightenment. In reality, it is influenced by the society, the cultures, and the geographical location it is created and enforced in. This in turn affects the way we enforce it in our communities, which then affects what people learn about life, and how much they learn about the different aspects of it.
Consider the ongoing debate in the United States on teaching creationism versus evolutionary theories in the public school systems. Or, think about the different versions of historical events that are taught to children, depending on where they live. They profoundly affect how children and adults view the world around them. They also deeply influence our definitions of important personal ideas like leadership, success, and happiness.
INDIVIDUAL LEVEL INFLUENCES ON OUR CHOICES
Our socialization practices dictate the range of proper behaviors in making choices.
Socialization practices teach people how to act with other people around them. They are highly influenced by social and cultural norms, and also by educational practices. In turn, the way we socialize and raise our children affects the decisions that we make for them, and the choices they may have in their futures.
In most cultures, men are taught that they have to be the primary income earners in their families, and women are taught that the establishment and maintenance of households is their responsibilities. Stereotypically, men are taught to be more pragmatic and stoic, whereas women are “allowed” to be more emotional. Young men are almost encouraged to go out and “sow their wild oats” so to speak, but, women are policed for what they wear, how they talk, how they think and so on.
Our socialization practices are so dramatically influential that they shape every interaction and relationship we have for the rest of our lives. In fact, there is so much to be said about this topic that I will be doing more on this topic in the future.
Our psychology influences thoughts, values, decisions and behaviors involved in making choices.
All of these other pressures I mentioned so far, either consciously or unconsciously shape the very fabric of our lives. The lenses and filters through which we perceive and experience the world around us have a tremendous impact on what we think are the right choices to make. The places we live in, the people we live amongst, the way we are raised, and the things we are taught determine our attitudes and thoughts about almost everything in life. Our attitudes then affect our behaviors.
We inherit our value systems amidst these pressures, from our parents, communities, and cultures. We figure out what is right or wrong for us only within these boundaries set forth for us. Many of us even get content to operate within these boundaries, and fail to set up our own personal boundaries and expectations in life.
Subjective feelings about our personal experiences dictate the choices that we are willing to consider.
Our subjective experiences and our feelings are probably the biggest forces that affect the choices we make and the actions we take in our futures. Nothing rings truer than a personal, emotional experience. This is because almost all human beings are emotional entities. We feel strongly and passionately about the things that are important to us. We “hate” things that aren’t appealing to us. Heck, we even have multiple emojis these days to express nothing but indifference about things that we think are irrelevant to our lives.
All the other global, group level and individual level pressures that are exerted upon us influence our experiences in life. They guide our feelings about situations, people and even ourselves. They help us differentiate between things, people and encounters we like, and things, people and encounters that we don’t. Our experiences determine our future expectations. They help us figure out why certain things (like having a love marriage, for example) are so important to us.
The bottom-line is that in spite of – or maybe because of – all of these pressures that are imposed on our options to act, our choices are ultimately and very truly our own. Our choices give us a sense of freedom; they allow us to feel that we are living our lives in ways that fulfill us. They also enable us (in some cases, force us) to be accountable for our own actions, as long as we realize that our choices and actions will always have consequences that affect us, and everyone around us. To get to this point of personal accountability however, we need to thoroughly look at our options, and be able to clearly define what the goals, expectations and implications of our choices are. It is only when we can fully articulate what works for us and what doesn’t, do our choices become powerful tools that can help us make our lives more fulfilling.
Do you know how to express your choices to make them a reality? Do you know what works for you?