You & Your Family

Exercising choice: Boon or bane?

Mar 2014    

Some weeks ago, two stories that were unrelated news items caught my attention. The first was about a nine-year-old girl who was forced to wear a suicide vest in Afghanistan, and the second involved a British footballer who wore a fake suicide vest at a fancy dress party.

In the first account, the girl was initially lied to and then beaten in order to coerce her to attack an army checkpoint wearing the vest. She knew that the consequence of the attack was her certain death and hid herself. She was later found by soldiers and brought to safety.

In the second story, the footballer freely chose to go to a party dressed as a suicide bomber. After pictures of his “fancy dress” went viral, he was forced to issue an apology to his fans for being so frivolous with his actions.

These two news items brought to focus the topic of choice. In the first, the girl had little choice and those who had authority over and responsibility for her tried to deny her of a choice.

The second story was an example of poor use of one’s ability to choose. I believe most of us, like the footballer, have the freedom to choose. We therefore have to take responsibility for the choices we make.

I then thought of two other news stories I read around the same time. These involved examples of choices that many would regard as well made, albeit at great personal sacrifice.

Again, the first comes from a troubled region. A 15-year-old Pakistan boy tackled a suicide bomber who seemed intent to inflict carnage amongst students in his school. His action resulted in his death as well as the bomber’s, but it spared numerous other lives.

The second is the account of a 30-year-old Singaporean in Hong Kong who took time to raise the alarm of a fire in the hostel she was staying at, instead of fleeing to safety immediately. Her selfless action may have saved many lives but she herself was overcome by smoke and her life hung in the balance.

How did these individuals choose to do such sacrificial and courageous acts? Did they not hesitate or flinch for a moment?

Did they not count the cost, and assess the danger to themselves? How would we have responded if we were placed in a similar situation? I do not think any one of us can be entirely sure how we would respond. I certainly do not have a clue.

I suspect though that when it comes to situations like these, when a split-second response is required, we react rather than decide. Our reaction is probably based on our values and beliefs as opposed to a cool-headed weighing of options. If this is true, then our spontaneous actions may reveal something about our true identity.

Thankfully, most of the choices we have to make on a daily basis are not between good and evil, life and death, but of a more mundane nature. We decide whether to take a bus or the train, have the set lunch or choose from the menu. Indeed some of us are faced with the “Tyranny of choice”, being so overwhelmed with options that we become confused and indecisive.

Standing in front of a counter confronted by ice cream of various hues or coffee of various origins and strengths can be rather daunting. Faced with so much choice, sometimes after choosing we still wonder whether other alternatives would be better. So although the choice is made, some are bothered by the thought of what they are missing out instead of enjoying the choices they have made.

The Bible has an account of two sisters making a choice about how to conduct themselves when they met Jesus. In Luke 10:38, Martha did what was traditionally correct to show hospitality to an honoured guest by busily preparing a meal for Jesus. Mary, on the other hand, “sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word.” (v39) She received Him in the traditional way of one receiving a Teacher.

Martha was absorbed in her preparation for their important guest and Mary was absorbed with the guest himself. Jesus commented on the focus of their energy and attention, saying that whilst Martha was “worried and troubled about many things”, “Mary has chosen that good part” (v41). Martha’s actions were not wrong, but perhaps less appropriate. So you see, there are many ways of dealing with choices.

When faced with individuals who are robbed of their ability to choose, may we seek to promote justice and empower them. When faced with choices between good and evil, right and wrong, may we have the courage to be firm. When faced with two reasonable choices, may we have the wisdom to discern which is the better way.

Picture by alphaspirit/Bigstock.com

Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award in 2011 and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.

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