When I was in high school the light switch in my bedroom was a bronze plate we picked up in Charlottesville while visiting Monticello. Inscribed around the cream-colored on/off switch was this simple Jeffersonian quote: “Freedom is the right to choose.” There was more, but the switch smack dab in the middle made it difficult to read.
So whenever I had put the light on I could read at least that part of the quote. One day I was reading that quote and the light went on. This historical trinket suddenly became current. I did not have to go to college; it was an option. I did not have to stay in the crappy job I had; I did not have to follow one career path. What at the time seemed like inevitable destinations became simple choices I could make—or not. The indirect effect of this knowledge was to quit complaining about what is not going well for me and either accept it or change it—kind of a cousin to the serenity prayer. In essence: I put myself in whatever situation might be questionable and, therefore, I can take myself out of it simply by choosing to do so. I became aware of something everybody else seemed to have known instinctively: it’s my life and I can do with it what I choose.
This comes with responsibility, of course. I don’t want to make choices that hurt others. I don’t want to make choices to satisfy me now while compromising my future; and I don’t want to make choices good only in the long run but destroy my sense of now. It’s not easy, this balance; in fact, it can be profoundly complicated. Talk about the power of language: the simple phrase, “Freedom is the right to choose,” comes with unspeakable responsibility.
In 1985 I sat on a platform next to Richard Simmons, just him and me, with about fifty mostly women from Worcester, Massachusetts, at the end of a one hour workout I conducted which Richard had joined in the middle. I turned the cool-down over to him. The cool-down was the last five minutes or so during which we motivated the people to keep at it. Richard was the best at this.
He calmed everyone down and said, “You feel trapped, don’t you.” He teared up but honestly it was sincere. “You feel like you don’t have any choices, don’t you? Your husbands ignore you. They make fun of you at the mall. You stopped looking in the mirror, didn’t you?” Everyone nodded. It was absolutely silent. He was good. A crowd had formed at the open doors to the studio. “The only time you feel in control and good is when…you eat…isn’t it?” Everyone laughed and agreed.
“You’re not trapped! Freedom is your right!” he said. “Your freedom doesn’t belong to anyone else. It is yours. It is the most precious gift you have! Don’t hand it over to anyone.
“You can choose to eat something else. You can choose to laugh when people laugh at you. You can choose to feel good about yourself. If you stay home and don’t do something for yourself that helps, it is because you decided to stay home; don’t blame anyone else. If you go for a walk, if you ignore people who make fun of you, it is also because you decided to. It is your choice. Remember that.”
I saw some lights go on in the studio; women looked up seemingly suddenly empowered.
We all stood up and he hugged everyone in the club. Everyone. I finished working that day, moved, taught college, and more than doubled my age. I walked into class last week and asked people why they chose to come to college. It was the first day and for many the first time in college. No one could answer me. I made some suggestions about the future and majors and moving forward and blah blah blah but they just stared at me. They didn’t even nod.
So I asked again: “What are you doing in English Comp?”
Almost like a chorus, their response was, “It’s required.”
I swear for a moment I could hear music coming from the studio speakers, hear Richard’s overly-excited voice bounce off the walls followed by his calm voice which reached into each person’s fears and settled them down.
I looked at the class. “No. It isn’t. You’re eighteen, at least, you’ve graduated high school. This is not required. Nothing is required of you anymore. You can be here or join the military or get a job or hitchhike to flipping Key West and serve tables at Captain Tony’s. This is a choice. You freely choose to sit in that seat this day and take this course. The sooner you remind yourself you don’t need to be here the better you’re likely to do in this course.” They stopped looking at the cell phones and paid attention.
We talked a while but I was only half-paying attention to what I was saying. Part of me thought about the times I complain about my job, other situations in my life, the conditions in the world; the sense of doom and apprehension which saturates society right now. Sometimes we don’t get to choose, or when we do it doesn’t go our way. What then? What if I DID show up to exercise but I’m still not losing the weight? What if I DO want to be in English Comp but I just don’t understand the material? What happens when even when I choose, I do not feel awash with the glory of freedom?
Jefferson wasn’t dumb. So I went back and looked up that old quote.
“Freedom is the right to choose, the right to create for oneself the alternatives of choice. Without the possibility of choice, and the exercise of choice, a man is not a man but a member, an instrument, a thing.”
Property. Without exercising our right to choose, we are not free. There is no difference between someone who is not free and someone who chooses not to exercise those freedoms.
Richard’s favorite cool-down comments were about choice. “You have two choices,” he would say. “You can choose whatever blocks your way to slow you down, or you can choose to do what it takes to overcome it. You can choose to take control of your situation, or you can choose to hand that choice over to someone else. But if you do, it is still your choice.”
I got more out of that job than anywhere else I ever worked.