The Choice Between Freedom and Love

pittsfieldpreserve_BarbaraEckstein1

If you are a long-time reader of my blog (that is to say, if you’re Erik — hello, Erik), you know that I’ve been playing with this question of choice for nearly a decade now. You might even remember an old journal entry I shared back in 2007 on this very topic, the difference between choice and decision. Maybe you even sent me the link to my old blog in a moment of unbridled nostalgia. (Thanks, Erik!) I haven’t decided if it’s comforting or discouraging that I’m still pondering this issue after all these years. But in the name of stubborn optimism, maybe at least it’s nice to know that in the nine years since writing this old thing, my answer to its final question has more and more often been yes

The following post was originally published May 2007 on Meadowsweet & Myrrh.


While hillwalking in the woods today, I stumbled upon a philosophical puzzle-of-sorts. It’s about a slight distinction that I never noticed until today: What is the difference between choosing, and deciding? Between making a choice, and making a decision?

A great deal of my spirituality boils down to two distinct trends, which could be called the path of love, and the path of choice. For instance, communion with the Divine, communication and honesty with other individuals, the integrity of the self and of one’s community: these all relate back to love — the idea of union, of interconnection — in one way or another. Likewise, creativity, inspiration, participation, the celebration of diversity, freedom of the individual will: all of these have to do with choice, the manifestation and exercise of an individual’s uniqueness. The core tension at the heart of my spiritual life is the tension between love, and choice. One urges a surrendering or sacrificing of the ego-self to a greater Whole, whether through a communion which seems to overwhelm any sense of separation, or the mundane risk of being honest with others and making that leap into trust. The other emphasizes the unique expression of the individual self, it celebrates that uniqueness, its freedom and the distinction of that self from the “other,” acknowledging both self and other as necessary for the joys and diverse beauties of the manifest world.

I talk a great deal about the relationship between love and choice. Love, I believe, must be a choice — in that it must be a unique expression of a creative individual. Union itself must celebrate and elevate the particular, rather than destroying or subsuming it. In his first book, Nature, Emerson wrote:

A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world.

Love and choice are related in this way — choice reveals love — individuality reveals community — creative freedom reveals honesty and integrity. Furthermore, choice must be founded in and informed by love — the immediacy of union, the here-now of direct experience. We make choices based on our connection and interrelation, understanding the complex matrix of response and responsibility (response-ability).

But where in all of this is decision-making?

Political satirists make fun of President Bush for declaring himself “The Decider.” [Can you tell this was written in 2007?] Why is this (painfully) laughable? Clearly, we have an unspoken understanding that “decisions” can be made regardless of reality — we can make bad decisions, decisions based on faulty or scanty information, decisions which we stubbornly adhere to even in the face of circumstances which shift and change. Decisions can be made long before the fact. They can be abstract or idealistic, and they can be rendered irrelevant.

But choice — I think choice is something different. Choice is always about responding to the present, not only choosing “the lesser of two evils,” but choosing to respond creatively to a difficult situation, acting on the freedom to seek out and articulate alternatives. I might make the decision to be a loving person, but if I do not make the daily choice to respond to each individual with love and respect, what relevance or value does that decision have? In romance, I might decide never to allow a person to hurt me the way I have been hurt in the past, and so I might behave a certain way in order to safe-guard myself (a person might ask for some space, for example, and I may decide that such a move has always been manipulative and hurtful in the past, so I break it off immediately and decide never to give that person a chance again). But this is not a choice to respond to this particular individual in the here and now as a unique person — it is an abstract decision that ignores the specifics and closes me off to the potential for connection.

This is what I thought about as I walked in the woods this morning. How much do I allow my life to be governed by my decisions about how the world and how people “ought to be,” and how I “ought to behave”? How open am I to making real choices, on a daily basis, facing up to the potential within every single moment to integrate love and free will, and to respond to the diversity and interconnection of an ever-shifting and always surprising reality? How long can the false safety of my decisions hold up? And will I be strong enough to choose love when every theory and moral code falls away?


Photo Credit: “pittsfield preserve,” by Barbara Eckstein (cc) [source]

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Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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