Our lives are driven by choices. We are constantly making decisions in reaction to the world around us, in response to our changing circumstances, and in order to produce a specific vision of the future. These choices range from the minute and routine, such as whether to buy coffee on a specific morning and what type of coffee to buy, to the very significant and profound, such as what career to pursue or who to marry. Almost every facet of our lives has been decided in this way, by a choice we have made at some point for some reason. The story of our lives, like any other tale of history, is told through a retelling of our choices, what prompted them, and what resulted from them.
Every experience we have in our lifetime is the result of us arriving at that point because of the choices we have made in the past. In order to visualize this, we can think of life as a road network. Everybody begins life at the same point, at the same starting location. Though, of course, our circumstances may all be different at birth, we have yet to make the decisions which will make our own life unique, personal, and distinct. The direction that our life will take begins with our first choices. We may quickly leave the road which we began on, and pick up a new route. This new road may be large or small, it may take us in the opposite direction from the road we were on or continue along it in parallel. In the same way, our choices may be large or small, may redefine who we are or simply tweak an aspect. As we continue to drive, we continue to make new turns, take new roads, and return to old ones. Ultimately, we arrive at our final destination. Where this destination is depends on the turns we made, the roads we drove, the routes we took. At some point, our route diverged from someone else’s, and, likewise, our life was different than theirs.
There are major implications which come with the recognition that life is driven by choices. The most profound, to me, is that life in the present depends heavily upon the small choices we make and upon the decisions we made long ago. It is true that some choices define our life more than others. Where we decide to go to school, what career we pursue, where we live, and who we love define us and impact our life in enormous ways. They set the direction in which we will travel, and determine what choices we will have to make along the way. Minor choices too, however, influence this path. Indeed, minor choices can have major implications as we travel further down our road, because each minor choice we make alters the course we take ever so slightly. Added up, these minor choices can take us in the opposite direction than the road we were initially traveling on was headed. To use the analogy of the road network, let’s consider a changing of lanes. The road we are taking is still the same, the direction unchanged. However, by switching our lane, we’ve altered our circumstances on that road. If we have moved over too far, we might miss an exit which we were going to take. Likewise, we might now be able to pick up a new road which was before inaccessible. Over time, these minor changes lead to major decisions which could alter our life forever.
In a similar fashion, choices from long ago can impact our life as much as choices from the recent past or present. If, when driving along our road, we choose to turn onto a new one early on, we have cut ourselves off from all the routes heading the opposite direction. After a long period of driving, we may decide that we really wanted to go the other way, after all. Because of our choice long before to turn, however, we must now backtrack. Similarly, we may decide to take a shortcut, until we realize that the road is closed for construction as we approach the end. We are now forced to make new choices, and take new routes, because of our choice in the past.
The conclusion that we should draw from this recognition is that every choice, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem, carries an enormous influence on our life. Every new choice we make is added in front of the last, setting up the path which our life has taken. The small choices add to this path just as much as the large choices and the direction this path takes early on will profoundly influence where it ends up. It is impossible to predict what impact a choice will have on our life, and how it may set in motion the opportunity for more choices. Still, we must be cognizant that, as we decide our path through life, we are also determining where we will end up, and what experiences we may face along the way.
So far I have only discussed our own choices, and how they impact our own life. It is important to consider, however, how our choices are often made in response to circumstances and situations which are outside of our control. We must often react and respond to the choices that other people have made, and, in turn, they must react and respond to ours. We are at all times caught up in a web of interacting choices. The decisions which we make influence not only our own future, but also influences the decisions which others will face. Our minor choices may present opportunity for major decisions to someone else. For example, a small act of kindness on our part can brighten the day of someone else, who, in a happier mood, decides to carry on the kindness to someone else. This continues until it hits someone who has had a terrible day, so bad, in fact, that they are considering quitting their job and leaving their family. A small, passing gesture of kindness carried along ultimately may be enough to convince that person to hold off on making their major, negative choice. As a similar example, the minor choice of changing lanes on a highway might move you in front of someone in a hurry. They accidentally rear end you as a result. Unfortunately, they were on the way to the airport, so that they could attend a major business meeting which their career depends on. If that person misses their plane, the meeting, and thus loses their job, it is because of the passing choice of changing lanes which you made on the highway one day.
A profound realization is that all of human history can be described as the result of all of our choices interacting. History may be driven by major events and major characters, but the decisions that they made to produce those events were influenced by the decisions made by everyone else. Every choice made in history, be it the routine and insignificant choices of a poor farmer to the decidedly significant choices of the president, were intimately interacting and interwoven. If we consider how our choices impact other peoples’ lives and force them to make choices, we begin to recognize that we all impact and influence the course of history, every day. As an example: my choice to change lanes on the highway might be of very little significance, but somehow I altered a traffic pattern which, in turn, influenced someone’s driving behavior so that they, in turn, may have arrived at a meeting late, thus causing their boss to miss important information and fail to relay it up the company’s chain of command. This, then, causes the company to make some faulty financial decisions, which then cause a disruption in the economy. This economic disruption impacts the finances of the country, and ultimately forces the government to make cuts in some program. This example may seem a bit extreme, but it is an entirely accurate representation of the way our choices, once made, set up the circumstances and situations which, along the line, can be much larger and significant than our original choice.
History, and life, becomes much more complex and, in my view, interesting when viewed in this way. Recognizing that everyone who shares the road with you is on that road because of a choice they made, which was influenced by another choice before that, reveals how complicated our world and society truly is. Yet it also demonstrates how everyone, despite their differences, is intimately and inseparably connected. We all make choices and our lives are all influenced by these choices. We all live in a world which is run by this web of interacting decisions. No matter how minor an influence it may be, my choices today will somehow set in motion other choices, situations, and circumstances which will influence someone I have never met before, perhaps even someone across the globe. This is constantly happening, and our lives are determined and shaped by the decisions constantly being made by the billions of people who share this world.