I heard a story this week about a parent on the other side of the globe who made an impossible choice. They sold their youngest child into servitude to raise funds needed for their oldest child’s wedding. The person who told me this tragic tale was aghast that any parent could ever do that to their child. From this teller’s perspective (of American middleclass safety and privilege), that was a purely unforgivable act.
To me it sounded like a horrifying set of options, as opposed to just an evil choice. It was not a choice between dooming their child to a life of bondage or providing that child with an otherwise normal life. It was a choice between providing one child a chance at a better life or dooming both children to a life of destitution and poverty. There was no good option in this case, so it was impossible to make a good choice.
While it is true that we are each responsible for the choices we make, it is highly relevant which options are available at the time of choosing. It is critical to consider the context in which a parent chooses between their children. Humanizing people in that way lets you see the choices they had, not just the choice they made. And it reveals more cleanly that the real problem is the system they are trying to function in.
Months ago I had a discussion with a friend who is a racism skeptic. There was a meme going around the internet at the time that he shared with me to make a point. It’s an image of three humans of color in a court room. One is the defendant, one is their attorney, and one is the judge. The point of the meme is that each person’s choices are what landed them in the position they occupy in this imaginary courtroom. But, just like my friend, the meme is missing a key point.
A person can only choose to go to law school and become a lawyer (and later a judge) if they have access to certain things. Access to supportive adults who will guide them along a life path aimed at a reputable college. Access to the financial resources to pay for school. Access to mentors who can help make connections with potential future employers or colleagues. Access to a supportive community that believes in their potential and nurtures their abilities.
Achievement does not exist in a vacuum, especially in our capitalist society. And neither does failure. There are many studies that show the socio-economic status of the family you are born into has much more bearing on the life you will lead as a future adult than any of the choices you make along the way. Financial stability, emotional stability, community stability are the necessary foundations from which a person can express their capability and achieve amazing things.
Of course there are stories of people who made great achievements despite all circumstances stacked against them. These are the very few exceptions that prove rule. And even those stories include at least one fortuitous connection with the right person at the right time in the right place. In other words: those stories include at least one point at which a good option was available to choose from.
Reflecting on my own life I can see many points at which I had a good option to select. My career all started decades ago with a conversation I had with a family friend in my parents livingroom. I wanted a better paying job and he told me about working for the IRS. He happened to mention it on the very last day to apply for that years round of hiring. Many years later, that same friend suggested I apply for a job in a different department that gave me the experience I needed to leave the Service and start my own business.
My martial training is similarly full of positive happenstance. A friend invited me to the grand opening of his roommate’s martial arts school. I watched the demos, enjoyed the snacks, and signed up for the extremely low-priced intro offer. When that expired I had a steady job so I could continue to pay the regular cost of dues. It happened to be a positive learning environment without the toxic bro culture that exists in many other martial arts schools so my training thrived.
At some point, women from the dojo invited me to a camp run by the Pacific Association of Women Martial Artists. At that first PAWMA camp I attended a session taught by my current Taiji teacher. I came back to the Shanti System a couple years later and that practice was exactly the compliment I needed to round-out my Mo Duk Pai training.
My family and home life evolved in a similar way. With people coming into my life at exactly the time when I was open to that connection. I have made many good choices over the course of my life. They are part of what has shaped my existence into the fulfilling situation it currently is. And I could never have managed it without the privilege of access to healthy options along the way.
Information and Inspiration
Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.