How do you feel about the right to make personal choices in your life? Are your beliefs in personal choice — the “pro-choice” stances in your lives — truly based on conviction, or merely convenience? And I’m not simply referring to pro-choice from the myopic lens of the abortion debate, although that’s a good starting point for our exploration of this topic.
We are always at choice. Every action and inaction we take is based on a choice — conscious or unconscious.
Perhaps you are pro-choice regarding a woman’s choice about her body. Or perhaps you are pro-choice regarding a fetus’ right to live their life. Either way, is your stance based on a conviction that covers all areas of a person’s life? Or on a convenience that is governed by your personal biases and beliefs and only applies in this singular instance?
It’s not difficult to move from convenience to conviction when it comes to transforming our beliefs about choice. It’s just different. And it requires us to dig deep under the surface proclamations we make and the symbolic actions we take to “send a message” about our stand on any given topic.
If personal choice is a conviction that we stand on and behind, then we must also be pro-choice regarding a parent’s right to determine what chemicals are inserted into their children’s bodies (vaccines), and how their children are educated (school choice and standardized testing).
If we believe in personal choice, then we have to allow for the fact that a person on death-row, who committed murder, chose to do so — knowing that the punishment for murder could include death.
If we say we are pro-choice regarding a person’s right to decide for themselves when to end their lives via assisted suicide if they have a terminal physical condition, then we must extend that pro-choice conviction to giving people the right to end their lives if they are in a state of terminal mental anguish. And their right to choose to use their own guns to do so.
I will be the first to agree that there are times when medical miracles do occur, which could be used as an argument against the right to choose assisted suicide. There are also times when people change their mind about their despair.
And, yet, as Mitch Horowitz shares in his book, Metaphysics & Depression, “the truth is, if the severely depressed individual wants to take his or her life…that person can no longer be met with ‘thou shalt not’, because we live in a world where we see cycles of life and death all around us, and there’s no way to verify or insist that the individual is somehow separate from all those natural processes. If the individual wants to take his or her life, that option is there.”
The decision still must remain a personal choice, regardless of how any of us feels about such a choice. I have personally experienced the loss of two intimate family members to suicide by firearm. I myself was nearly a suicide statistic, having endured a 4-day self-inflicted drug-induced coma, which I came out of on my 21st birthday. While my desire to end my life passed, I am still squarely for a person’s right to choose suicide as a viable out, if it is what they truly desire.
Having a conviction of personal choice may not always seem to be an easy path, because it often requires us to square off against our own personal biases. It may even put us at odds with our friends, family and community.
In my early thirties, I was the editor of a newspaper that covered stories of interest to the gay community, near our nation’s capitol. We received a note from a group of gay people who were pro-life, whose request to march in the National Right to Life March in Washington had been denied by the march’s organizers.
I assigned the story to a young staff reporter whose initial reaction was a blanket dismissal of the group’s situation. He was adamant that the story did not need to be covered.
“Those people,” he proclaimed, “shouldn’t be wanting to march in a Right to Life march anyway.” As if being gay automatically meant every person should believe in a woman’s right to choose above all else.
His very rejection of the idea that they shouldn’t be allowed a choice in their own beliefs revealed the deep chord of convenience that is buried in the term ‘pro-choice.’
A conviction of pro-choice is why Chelsea Clinton keeps speaking out whenever the media attempts to malign Barron Trump. It’s a conviction based on having experienced the same scrutiny as a child of the President of the United States. A conviction gives us the courage to cross the boundaries that appear to separate us, one from another.
Who is the “other” in your life? What do you think would happen if you saw their choices and situations through the same compassionate and accepting lens that you demand they see yours?
Even the ACLU has seen the importance of having a true conviction of pro-choice. They have defended Nazis and the KKK with the same fervor as they have racial desegregation and gay rights. The right to free speech is the cornerstone of America. Yet the responses from ACLU’s detractors and supporters rise and fall like yo-yos in motion — switching from high praise to low disdain depending on personal beliefs about the issue (and the people) being defended by the organization.
We have reached a tipping point where we each must personally decide if our beliefs are a matter of conviction or convenience.
Our ability to choose what we believe is a matter of basic human dignity and empathy, based on what truths we hold dear. If we would not want someone denigrating or threatening to eliminate our choices we should not be doing it to anyone else — no matter our personal beliefs.
Which brings me to a current events issue that perfectly highlights our need to honor personal choices. US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and President Donald Trump are the perfect odd-couple in this dance.
A day ago, this tweet was posted by one of them: “It is so hurtful to see how every aspect of my life is weaponized against me, yet somehow asserted as false at the same time.”
The sentiment could easily have been tweeted by either Trump or Ocasio-Cortez. What does this have to do with personal choice?
It highlights our conundrum: regardless of where in the political spectrum your beliefs seat you, it’s time to stand in our conviction of personal choice. Is it your personal choice to attack and defend others for their personal choices, or is it your personal choice to stand on higher ground?
At times it feels as if the executive and legislative branches of the United States government are the parents in a high-conflict divorce, fighting for custody of their citizens’ love. It’s time to look at our situation from a new perspective.
Sure, when you feel you or your “beloved” is being vilified, it’s easy to be hurt by the “attacks” on your (or their) person, actions or character. When you feel your “beliefs” are being attacked, it’s easy to say that an attack on another, or on their beloved is warranted.
Our baser instincts drive us to gather facts that support our evidence for and against each side’s actions, while ignoring contrary facts that might shed a broader light on things. In our zeal to be right, we have thrown personal choice under the bus, and then driven back and forth over it for good measure.
We have narrowed our sense of what is right and wrong to a pinpoint of possibilities — where absolutely anything can be construed as either an attack or warranting an attack. We are so hyper-sensitive to any perceived slight that we find fault with everyone and everything.
As a result, we exclusively look for — and therefore find — evidence of immorality, duplicity, untruthfulness, greediness and so on. And we do the same in highlighting evidence of what we believe is true and right and good.
To have our choices respected, we must first be willing to support everyone’s choices — no matter how personally reprehensive those choices may feel on the surface. We don’t know another person’s path or story. We only know what we’ve been fed by media outlets, what our friends have shared (and not usually first-hand), and what we’ve decided to make true for ourselves. It’s time to stop judging. It’s time to stop attacking, and it’s time to stop defending.
It’s time to make ourselves vulnerable and thereby make ourselves whole.
Demanding that the ‘other’ cease fire first simply won’t do. It’s up to each of us, individually, to recognize that the mutual destruction we are doing has taken us off course from what we wish to have in this world. We’ve all but eradicated personal choice and attempted to beat individuality out of everyone. Each of us has to be willing to take the first step toward a true conviction of personal choice.
It all begins with understanding what it is we truly all want — without bias. When it all comes down to it, every single person in the world — regardless of whether we (or they) realize it or not — wants the same thing.
We all want to feel safe and loved in our lives. We may have vastly different ideas of what will make us feel safe and loved. We may have preconceived notions of what we think will make another feel safe and loved. And yet, the only way forward — the only way through — is by giving the gift of safety and love to everyone else.
What we know to be true is only what we believe to be true.
Which is why the gift of love and safety cannot be based on our belief system, but only on the ability to allow others to believe as they choose to believe. Without finding it necessary to attack or disparage.
A true conviction for personal choice carries with it a heavy burden: the willingness to risk being seen as aligning with “the enemy.” From my personal viewpoint, however, the unifying effect does more than outweigh the risk. It’s essential to the survival of our species.
Raised in a home with a Republican father and a Democratic mother, Paula Langguth Ryan’s life-long work as a mediator, peacemaker, bridge-builder and communications consultant started in high school, when she realized she was always welcome at any party — from the “stoners” to the math club — but no one would come to her parties if “those people” were going to be there.