Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Choice (Again)

My father grew up in the 50's when the role of men was to earn money and that of women was to make the home and rear the children. His life with my mother started out quite like that as he worked making cars for freight trains and she stayed at home and got pregnant with my sister and I. I don't know what their life was like during those years because I was too young to perceive the dynamic between them, but I suppose at this point that they both were living the life they expected in accord with societal norms of the time.

Some time during my father's employment, he suffered an accident in which he was struck in the head with heavy equipment. This happened not once, but several times and the consequence was that he became disabled. The damage done to him would cause random blinding headaches that the most powerful pain medication at the time could only blunt, but not obliterate. He would also suddenly become paralyzed on his left side and become blind in his left eye. The doctors told him that he was going to die young and gave him 6 months to live after conducting painful spinal taps.

All of this happened to my father over 30 years ago and he did not die as the doctors predicted. He did, however, become an alcoholic who sat around the house all day watching T.V. and smoking. My mother, who didn't get the life she bargained for economically as the family was living on my fathers Social Security disability payments, had to go out and work at minimum wage jobs which she hated. While she worked, my father sat around and did little aside form the occasional handling of the trash, yard work, or maintaining our vehicles. He was home all day, and except on those rare occasions when he suffered headaches or paralysis, fit for doing household chores and child-rearing.

One of the many sources of contention between my parents was the burden imposed upon my mother with having to work and be responsible for home and kids. My father would not do these things because this was not man's work. In the end, their solution was to burden my sister and I with as much cooking and housework as they could heap on our 10- and 12-year-old shoulders. It was easier for my mother to say that her two daughters, who were in school full-time, should split the entirety of household responsibilities between them than fight with her husband to have him do some of the things he was well and truly capable of doing.

One could argue that my father made a choice in choosing not to assume the role generally occupied by the woman of the house and that he chose to sit on his ass and do what was easy for him. There may have been a time when I even believed that, but that would not be the case anymore. Now that I'm older, and hopefully quite a bit wiser, I realize that my father made a choice but not the one which seems obvious to most people.

My father was raised in another era and men who were manly did certain things and didn't do other things. When he lost his job and essentially lost his life when given a death sentence, a component of his masculinity was ripped away. He couldn't work and support the family and he wasn't strong physically anymore. Turning to "women's work" because he had the time and ability would have shredded off another large piece of his identity. My father didn't choose to be a lazy, inconsiderate husband and a bad father. He chose to preserve his fragile self-esteem and self-image over shattering what little of these things he had left.

People often talk about how behavior is a choice, and to some extent, that is true. However, we are not all operating from the same pool of options or driven by the same psychological forces to make a particular choice. I've talked before about how choices are driven by the power of individual history and I strongly believe that remains an important truth. Most of us realize this when we are the ones driven to make "bad choices" or choices that are externally judged to be poor ones. We are not so good at applying that insight to others when they make choices we don't agree with.

Thinking about my father's situation, I realize all too clearly how easy it is to judge people for the behaviors they seem to "choose". Psychological survival is a big factor in every choice a person makes and some of us are closer to the precipice and falling into oblivion than others when it comes to the final decision. For my father, he was too close to the edge to be a pioneer in men's roles. In fact, it is my belief that he hurt himself more than anyone else in my family with this choice because it only continued to reinforce his sense of his life's emptiness and lack of value.

There were times when he'd cook for himself or us or wash dishes offering up the angry excuse that "no one else was going to do it", but I think he actually enjoyed doing such things when he gave in to those impulses. His fear of being "found out" or labeled a househusband (particularly if his male friends found out) was too great, unfortunately, for him to ever continue on in such behaviors or to engage in them regularly. I think he knew he was pretty good at those things, and in fact, now, much later in life with my mother being blind and disabled, he will do such things on a daily basis without complaint. Of course, most of his friends are dead, and times have changed, so the risk of being discovered for doing domestic tasks is pretty low now as well.

I wonder how many people are driven to unconsciously make bad choices to the detriment of themselves or others because of psychological survival. From the girl in the group of "cool" kids who regrets bullying the dorky girl but goes along with it to fit in to the car full of dudes who catcall girls because they feel it's the only way to prove their heterosexuality to the people who judge themselves harshly by what they eat, I think there is a lot of "choosing" which reflects that people have little other choice.

I think that we can broaden our capacity to make choices which help us move toward being the kind of people that we want to be, and I believe it's something I've done and continue to do. It's immensely difficult and requires a high level of self-awareness and a strong desire to change the range of choices which are psychologically possible for you, but it can be done over time if one is emotionally prepared for the task. However, I don't think that we can do that until we stop oversimplifying the behavior of others (and ourselves) by saying that what we are doing is something as trivial as "making a choice".