The Choice You Never Want to Make ... And the One You Do
Ms. Zawistowska is going to die. It will be by suicide.
Many will argue that her boyfriend was responsible. The truth is that her devastating past relentlessly haunted her.
It’s a tragic story of difficult choices and painful consequences.
The Psychology of Choice
Making hard choices is emotionally taxing. No one likes to do it. The more (potentially) impactful the decision, the more draining it is on our psyche.
Research suggests that people have much stronger emotional reactions (including regret) to an outcome that follows from some action we took versus the same outcome resulting from inaction.
In other words, if we want the outcome to be A but it turns out to be B, we will feel very differently about the result depending upon how we got there.
What Blackjack Can Teach About Life
Blackjack players were studied to determine how much joy and pain they felt from various decisions they made during the course of gambling.
In every round, a player needs to make a decision to either Hit or Stand (unless the dealer drew a Blackjack). In the research experiments, half of the time players were posed the question “Do you want to Hit?” The other times they were asked, “Do you want to Stand?”
The question shouldn’t make a difference. Professional blackjack players already know whether they are going to hit or stand. The dealer asking any question is irrelevant.
But it turns out not to be true.
Where Yes isn’t Not No
Players who answered “Yes” to either question (Do you want to Stand? Do you want a Hit?) and then subsequently lost experienced far more regret than those who answered “No” to either question and still lost.
That is insane.
Let’s play this out. Player A is planning to stand. The dealer asks, “Do you want a Hit?” Player A says “No” and then ends up losing the round – which, in retrospect, they would have won had they taken the hit. Player A feels some sense of regret, but not a lot.
Now, same exact setup. Player A planning to stand. Dealer asks, “Do you want a Hit?” This time player says “Yes” goes bust and loses. Player A now feels far, far worse.
But wait, it gets even crazier.
The exact same results are observed when the question is phrased “Do you want to Stand?” When players answer “Yes” and lose, they are far more regretful than when answering “No” (in other words, taking a hit) and losing.
But shouldn’t answering No to “Do you want to Stand?” be identical to answering Yes to “Do you want a Hit?”
As far as the outcome of a Blackjack round, yes, but as far as our emotions, not even close.
It turns out that when a negative result occurs from an active choice we make, we feel far worse than if the same result occurred from inaction on our part.
Answering Yes to either Hit or Stand and then losing is much more painful than answering No to either question and still losing.
How Would You Feel?
Think about this for yourself. Consider these two scenarios.
Scenario 1: You own stock in a fictitious company called Alpha. You consider pulling your money out of Alpha and instead investing it into Omega. After thinking about it, you decide to stick with Alpha and end up getting an OK return on your investment. It turns out that over the same time period, Omega did very well and your return would have been much higher had you made the switch. Of course, you feel some amount of regret.
Scenario 2: You own stock in Omega. You consider pulling your money out and instead investing it in Alpha. In fact, you pull the trigger and make the switch. Alpha nets you an OK return on your investment. However, over that same period, Omega did very well. Had you stayed with Omega, you would have made far more money.
Which scenario feels worse?
It’s not even close. Research suggests that Scenario 2 feels about 10x worse than Scenario 1.
When we actively make a choice that results in a negative outcome, we feel really, really bad. Much more so than had we not made any choice but still experienced the same negative outcome.
The Psychology of Life
Relatively speaking, those are easy choices to contemplate: Hit or Stand, buy this stock or that one. There will be a fair amount of agonizing if the dollar amounts are considerable.
But the beautiful Ms. Zawistowska lived her tumultuous, short life amidst seismic polarities and far more substantial choices.
As a Polish-Catholic survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, she subsequently fell in love with a Jewish American man. While Zawistowska’s father was a violent anti-Semite, both her father and her husband were shot in the concentration camps. Zawistowska herself was sentenced to Auschwitz for smuggling a piece of ham to her dying mother.
But of all her choices, none was more devastatingly heart wrenching than this. The night she arrived in Auschwitz, Sophie Zawistowska disembarked with her two young children – a son and daughter. A sadistic guard forced her to choose which of her two children would be immediately sent to the gas chamber and which would be allowed to live, albeit in the camp.
Sophie agonizingly chose to sacrifice her daughter Eva, rationalizing that her son might stand a better chance of surviving in the camp. Sophie’s choice haunted her the rest of her life, and ultimately led her to suicide.
The Devastating Choice
Sophie’s Choice is perhaps one of the most tragic novels in American literature and one of author William Styron’s most controversial. Imagine having to make such a catastrophic choice as did Sophie. Consider the emotional torture. Is choice even an appropriate word for such a circumstance?
As we read in A Course in Miracles:
Where one choice is as [devastating] as the other, the decision must be one of despair.
Yet what we learn in the Course is that when we are joined with the wrong-minded thought system of the ego, all our choices are decisions for despair. All outcomes of the ego are devastating.
What Makes You Happy and Sad?
When we choose our ego-mind, we are convinced that joy and pain come from what’s going on in the world, our close relationships, and our body.
If things go a particular way, then we are happy. Otherwise, we wish certain aspects of life to be different.
Choosing the ego is like answering Yes to “Hit?” or “Stand?” and losing. Or like switching an investment and subsequently missing out on what would have been a huge win. The regret is immense.
Only, in the case of choosing the ego, we aren’t consciously aware of the regret. We repress it into unconsciousness. But what we don’t realize is that whatever we deny or repress will inevitably be projected out onto others and the world at large.
And that’s why we believe our unhappiness comes from the world and other people. We think if only things were different, then we’d be happy. We never realize that it has nothing to do with the world. It has nothing to do with other people. It has nothing to do with our body.
All our suffering comes from one thing, and one thing only: the choice for the ego.
The ego attempts to maintain and increase guilt, but in such a way that you do not recognize what it would do to you. The ego wishes no one well. Listen to what the ego says, and see what it directs you to see, and it is sure that you will see yourself as tiny, vulnerable and afraid.
This is what the ego has to offer, and yet we continually choose it without appreciating the magnitude of our regret.
Where Yes is Not No
However, unlike blackjack, investment, and all other decisions we make in the world, there is one choice we can make that leads to real happiness. And that’s choosing against the ego’s “no” to peace, “no” to happiness, “no” to love.
In stark contrast to the ego stands the right-minded thought system of Presence – that still, small voice that speaks for love and rises above the senseless noise of sounds that have no meaning. As we read in the Course:
There is another vision and another voice in which your freedom lies, awaiting but your choice. Change but this focus, and what you behold will change accordingly.
When we learn to make this right-minded choice, we not only experience a world that makes us indescribably happy, but we see the spectacular contrast to what we previously thought would bring us joy.
The Choice We Want to Make
In a world of pain and suffering – which is the only world that exists when we choose the ego – all our seeming choices do nothing but perpetuate misery.
Until, that is, we recognize there is one choice we can make to instantly exchange sorrow for bliss. Choosing against the ego and for the right-mind of presence and love.
From such a choice we “emerge from deepest mourning into perfect joy.”
And this is the one choice we always want to make.