A Yonsei Transplanted: The Impossibility of Choice

May 5, 2017 • Columnists, Youth

By Matthew Ormseth

I was nearly bowled over with giddy relief when an alum, visiting the office of the campus newspaper, told me and the other staffers, “A writer is someone who thinks writing is hard.” It was a moment of salvation.

As an aspiring reporter, I’d always harbored a suspicion that I was not cut out for the trade because I found writing excruciating. Every time I sat down to write a story, I’d wonder how in the world I would manage to squeeze the variety and richness of experience through the bottleneck of language.

Faced with the vastness of choice — Which words to use? Where to cut the sentence, the paragraph? What goes where, and when? — I’d contemplate giving it up.

The story, the dream of being a journalist, writing in general. I think it’s the mandate of choice that is most daunting for me as a writer, and knowing that other writers felt the same way was not so much comforting as it was redemptive. I felt saved.

As I grow older, I become more overwhelmed by the choices I have to make, and do make, every second of every minute of every day.

We choose what to feel and what to think, what to say and not to say. And, as the cliché goes, to choose not to do something is a choice in of itself, so we really do end up choosing, always.

It is funny, too, that as I grow older, I find myself returning to a quote I came across in childhood, from the “Harry Potter” series, no less.

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” Dumbledore tells our hero in “The Chamber of Secrets.” I still believe it.

I’d like to think that if we gauged someone’s character by his choices, rather than his ability or his circumstances, it’d make for a fairer and better estimation.

One of the tenets of Marxism I’ve struggled with is its determinism, its conviction that circumstances shape one’s character rather character shaping the circumstances of an individual.

Marx argued vehemently against, and rightly so, arguments that material poverty is the result of a poverty of willpower, intellect or morals — arguments that still resound in congressional chambers today.

Marx instead argued that a lack of willpower or intellect in someone who is poor is more often the result of being brought up in conditions of material poverty — the inverse of the preceding argument.

And I agree with him. What I disagree with, however, is the fatalism that lurks in so much of Marx, the unshakeable suspicion that we cannot rise above our circumstances.

The poor are doomed to be poor and uncreative and shiftless so long as they live and work within a system that treats them as poor and uncreative and shiftless.

Does free will not exist? When I read Marx, I was reminded of a quote from James Ellroy, who grew up in poverty after his mother was murdered in Los Angeles.

“Crime was the sloth and disorder of individual default on an epidemic scale,” Ellroy writes in “My Dark Places.” “Free will existed. Humans were better than lab rats reacting to stimuli.”

But one thing I’ve learned, too, is that no two choices are equal; more often than not you’re playing with a loaded die.

In college, I’ve learned how difficult it is to break out of cycles of endemic, multigenerational poverty. How discrimination teaches children to internalize bias and hatred. How much easier it is to be kind and innovative and responsible when your stomach is full and rent is paid and you have something to look forward to.

When I think about the staggering number and complexity of choices adults have to make in a single day, I feel like the stupefied writer at the desk again, saddled with the weight of the world, desperately afraid of being found out for the incompetent he really is.

My view of choice falls somewhere between the fatalism of Marx and Ellroy’s belief in free will.

The choices we face are weighted from the start, but we still get to choose. And out of those choices — the millions we make, every single day — we can trace a constellation of identity, the rough outline of who or what we are.

Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.

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