Our lives and any moments or situations you care to name are simply a combination and interaction of three things: process, context, and choice. Life and its many episodes consisting of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months is nothing more than a process, a long series of never-ending moments that unfold in a person’s life. We talk of life process whether we are describing a man, a pelican, a tree, or the ocean. Process can be applied as a concept to many things: the history of a nation, a procedure such as a medical operation, or a stage in one’s life such as adolescence.
Context is simply the situation one finds oneself in whether one is a child in a day-care centre, a career woman encountering a “glass ceiling” in the work world, or a group of oppressed people within a repressive political regime. Context can be personal, social, political, religious, medical (as in the case of having an illness or condition), and so forth. Context is what we, as individuals, are presented with at any given moment, what we find ourselves in. Sometimes the context is familiar, as in waking up in the morning and making our breakfast. Sometimes it is unfamiliar or unstructured, as in when a concert-goer finds himself being pushed to the front of the stage by an enthusiastic crowd. All contexts frequently require response and choice, especially in the face of obstacles or crisis.
Confronted with the never-ending flow of our days and process, and the fact of similarly morphing contexts, we have but one way to respond—via choice. Some Existentialists suggested that the important thing in life was the fact of personal choice. Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist who wrote movingly of World War II concentration camp experiences, said much the same thing about those personal choices we will into being, especially in contexts of conflict and crisis.
To a large extent, our choices finally define us, whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ If you want to understand others, consider their choices and decisions. What do they choose to do? How have they chosen to live their lives? What other choices might they make or have made? And what, then, of our own choices? How and why do we choose as we do? What do those choices say about us, our values, and beliefs, and the unique individuals we all are? Understanding our choices can move us forward in our lives. As novelist George Eliot once said, “The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice.”
Context is an element we often have to consider to avoid making snap judgements or judging on appearance alone. Choice is something people don’t realize they can have, even in very limited or limiting situations. Frankl writes of how choices of attitudes benefiting the inner lives of prisoners of concentration camps made it possible for prisoners to endure their suffering and to survive. They made positive choices rather than letting themselves fall easy victims to the awful and horrifying contexts they were in.
Our lives can be viewed as a long process made up of various smaller processes–events and episodes, some unfolding in minutes, others in hours or days, still others in months or years. We can all learn from process, especially once we accept it is the way life unfolds, not just for humans, but animals, plants, societies, nations, and history. If life is basically a common process of lifelong learning, one has to assume that growth can be a real possibility, something that can inform and direct our lives forward, step by step.
Once you become aware that choices matter and that you can choose much of how you live or view your life, then the possibility of what Maslow called self-actualization becomes a real possibility. Put another way, you can make or create your life. Attitude is a key factor in whatever process or context you may find yourself. In that sense, indeed, whether you view the proverbial glass as half-full or half-empty will affect how you manage or deal with problems, crises, and change. As I stated in an earlier selection “The Living Poem”, “you make it up.” In Hamlet’s words, “there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (There is something implicit in his comment also about the role of imagination in both thinking and attitude.)
(1st published here Sept. 2/2012)