John Gfroerer: We are the choices we make

For the Monitor
Published: 1/19/2019 12:15:03 AM

Choice. The word by itself in today’s world tends to draw attention to the abortion debate. But the word is too important to be co-opted by any one political cause. Really, it lies at the base of all political causes. Choice is the most fundamental freedom of our democracy. It also lies at the base of our own personal decisions with equal presence. The choices we make are the way we are identified by those around us.

Everyone has the privilege, or perhaps the obligation, to make choices every day. What socks to wear. Eggs or cereal for breakfast. What to pack for lunch. What route to take driving to work. What, what, what, what. Making a choice is the action we take most often in each day, most times without even giving a nod to the fact that we are making a choice.

Because we generally prefer things to be easy, choice can become robotic, at some level even meaningless. “Don’t even think about it” can become the mantra for those who want to park their need to think for a bit. We can even defer to a choice made long ago and hold on to it to justify not considering changing facts. If you prefer being stuck in the muck, you can choose to remain stuck in the muck.

But let’s kick it up a notch. I’m thinking of George W. Bush, who during his presidency sometimes used the word “consequence” when advocating his policies, or more accurately, when questioning those who might oppose his policies. There was an implied threat aimed at those who did not want to fall in place behind his agenda.

As he clearly understood and articulated, choice can have consequence. You’re either with us or against us. It is also true that in higher levels of government, or society, choices have consequences for people who had no input into the decisions made or the costs of those choices. Innocents in the wake, they are forced to live with what others have decided for them.

Scale it back down for a minute to something a bit less lofty than being a president. Scale it back to me walking through town. I can choose to respond or not respond to someone on the corner with a hand out asking for money. Driving on North State Street in busy traffic, I can choose to let a car stuck on a side street pull out into the flow of traffic in front of me. Or, I can just keep going, avoid eye contact, and leave them to wait for a more sympathetic driver. I can hold a door open for someone, or not. I can leave a tip, or not. I can be gracious when the line is long, or not. Choices, choices, choices. All with a good or bad outcome.

I can choose to be a helpful stranger or a jerk. And given that that is often the reality of a choice, why would I want to be a jerk? When given the option of helping someone or not, why not help? It just makes sense.

It is this most basic concept that perplexes me most about the current White House resident and the people who continue to parrot or defend his views. Kicking the discussion back up a notch, I believe we should expect our leaders to not be jerks. The decisions they make are more fateful to us all than just letting a car out into traffic on North State Street. Their actions carry extensive consequences, for you, for me, for people we will never know but who are not, in the end, much different than you or me. And, I understand, sometimes the weight of such decisions can be overwhelming. But that can’t be an excuse. In the end you are responsible for the choices you make and the compassion, or lack of compassion, those decisions reflect.

When the choice is between understanding-empathy-caring or building a wall, well, where do you fall? When the choice is between seeing humanity in others, or, pointing at desperate people and shouting that they are the problem, where does your humanity jump in? Given the option of being truthful or deceitful, what’s your preference? And what is your preference for those you interact with?

Choice. It is there for all to exercise, each with our own set of criteria. It is, you might say, what makes the world go round.

I can choose action, or I can choose to pretend that nothing is wrong. I can be quiet or I can speak out. I can choose acceptance of things that totally offend decency, or I can defend decency.

The choice is mine. The choice is yours. But just to be clear, let there be no misunderstanding. I will choose to speak out and defend decency every time. Choosing between being compassionate or a jerk – well, is there really a choice to be made?

(John Gfroerer of Concord owns a video production company based at the Capitol Center for the Arts.)

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