We Choose Our Pain, and We Can Choose Our Freedom

I met a millionaire whose older brother was in jail for dealing drugs and murder.

They had almost identical beginnings: they both grew up in the same battered woman’s shelter and mixed the same powder with water to make milk; they both started on the streets, finding protection from the violence by joining into it; they both had their fathers point a gun at their head and yell, “I’M GOING TO KILL YOU.” And yet, they ended up on polar opposite paths: one ending up in a mansion, the other in a cell; one with a black suit, the other with a jumpsuit.

jailAmerica is full of rags-to-riches stories like these that inspire some of us, make others jealous, and leave us all wondering: what causes some to flourish and others to crumble?

I think at some point, we’ve all asked that question in one way or another—what is it they have that I don’t? why don’t I get the same opportunities they do? why can’t I get a break? why does my life have to be so damn hard?

When we boil these questions down, we’re ultimately wondering why some of our lives are full of pain and others are full of freedom. But before we can answer that, we need understand why our lives are the way they are. And regardless of the situation, the pattern is the same:

  1. Things happen to us…these could be traumatic in nature or seemingly inconsequential. It could be rape, divorce, bullying, a death in the family, a backhanded compliment, a subtle slight from a stranger, or anything in between. These events are beyond our control because they are things that happened TO us.
  2. We chose to think about it a certain way…the important thing to recognize about ALL of these events is that none of them necessarily mean anything about us. Rape is about the perversion of the perpetrator, divorce is about unresolved conflict within that relationship, bullying, insults, and other verbal offenses are about the insecurity of the bully, and death is a natural part of life. In each of these circumstances though, we choose to think about them in a certain way. We attribute meaning: that it was our fault, that it’s because we didn’t do something right, that it’s because we’re not enough, that it reflects something about our faults and insecurities and inadequacies. No one else can select these thoughts for us because we are the only ones in control of the things we think. And no one else can choose to fixate on the thoughts we choose. Much of the pain from the circumstances in our life comes from the thoughts we choose to think about and what we make these things mean about us.
  3. We felt a certain way because of the thoughts we chose…our thoughts create feelings. When something happens and we think we are worthless, we feel depressed. We feel like our life has no meaning. When something happens and we think we handled the situation well, we feel proud of ourselves. When something happens and we think that we’re bad, flawed humans, we fixate on the pain and believe we deserve it. Ultimately, whatever we choose to think creates the feelings we experience.
  4. We acted according to the feelings we felt…we typically choose our actions based on how we feel. We hide because we feel embarrassed. We succeed because we feel confident. We spiral into our habits or addictions because we feel pain that we want to numb. Each of our actions can be traced to feelings that were created by thoughts we chose in response to circumstances that happened to us.
  5. We created habits for ourselves based on those actions…when we choose those actions over and over, they become the habits that govern our lives. It becomes easier to think the same thoughts, feel the same feelings, and choose the same actions when it’s what we’ve done in situations like this in the past. They are comfortable, predictable, and familiar, and they make sense to us based on what we’ve thought and chosen in our past.

The most critical part that we CAN NOT MISS here is this: our lives are the way they are because we chose for them to be that way. There is space between what happened to us and what we did in response, which is where we get to choose. And these choices over time are what create the quality of life, the frequency of pain, and the breadth of freedom we experience. If we miss this part, then we set ourselves up for continued frustration when we endeavor to better our lives.

We made a choice.

Yes, WE made a choice.

What happens TO us does not determine the rest of our lives. The same things happened to both the millionaire and the convict. One choose to let the adversity break him, and the other choose to let it help him break records. The way we chose to respond to the things that happen to us is what causes the impact—for better or for worse—in our lives. Anything that has EVER happened to us does not determine who we are! Rather, our response to what happens to us is what shapes us.

I know this is a paradigm shift for many people like it was for me, so it might help to contextualize it with a story from my life:

goalkeeperI played competitive soccer growing up. I was the goalkeeper (the guy who blocks the ball from going in the goal), and I worked hard to get good at the game. My dad drove me to and from every practice, was there at every game, spent time training with me outside of practices, went with me to out of town tournaments, and cheered me on the whole way. He sacrificed a lot of his life to spend time with me, make memories, and create a lasting bond with me as his son.

One day, I played a game and made a few big saves, but I let in a goal, and I felt vulnerable about it. I felt like I had let my team down, and I was afraid that because of that I feared that I would find out I wasn’t cut out for this position. When I got to the car, my dad began to talk about the game and complimented me on my saves, but then started to talk about my mistake. He analyzed the play and offered suggestions of what I could have done then and what I could do differently to learn from it and make a different play in the future. He was invested in me and in helping me improve, which is something I wanted to do every day. But in that moment, when he offered suggestions, I chose to think something about what he said that forever changed the course of my life. I chose to believe that he thought I wasn’t good enough. I thought that he was disappointed in me. I thought that he believed I didn’t have what it takes. And because of those thoughts, I felt embarrassed. I felt like I wanted to hide, go away, fix my own problems, and come back when I was ready to put on a perfect performance where no one could criticize what I did. And I felt safe as I escaped that moment by going somewhere else in my mind.

But it wasn’t just about that one moment because situations like that continued to happen. When anyone would criticize me, I began to repeatedly choose to think they thought I wasn’t good enough. I began to habitually hide from criticism, find ways to escape the pain I felt, and go off on my own to get better before I showed anyone what I had to offer. I believed that I was only as good as my latest performance, and I developed a lot of anxiety around sharing who I am with those who could potentially criticize me. I developed addictions to video games and to porn because it was easier to run away from the pain and escape into fantasy than it was to confront it.

The choices I made to think a certain way in reaction to my circumstances created the feelings I experienced and influenced the choices I made which became the habits I formed. But it’s far easier for us to say, “My dad made me this way,” or “If only you knew what I’ve been through,” or to blame our circumstances, our past, the things that happened TO us for the way we are today. While some situations obviously lend influence to think and act certain ways compared to others, there is freedom available to us when we realize that we chose and we get to choose how those things will affect us. In essence, we are who we are today because of the choices me made yesterday. We can never take responsibility for what happens to us, but we can take responsibility for how we choose to respond, and when we do, we will receive the power and ability to make ourselves different tomorrow.

You see, once we embrace our responsibility (that is, our response-ability; our ability to choose our response), once we determine we are the creators of our thoughts and our habits, then we can choose to change them. Nothing has been more freeing and empowering in my life than recognizing that it was not my dad that caused me to believe I was not good enough, but it was my own choice to believe my fears. Most people believe that taking responsibility for their choices would cause them to be buried in shame, but in reality it lifts you from the grave of powerlessness and gives you the ability to make your life the way you want it to be.

This means that the onus is then on us to make better choices. We can choose pain, or we can choose freedom. We can choose to learn to think differently about our circumstances and to choose to grow when it would be easier to hide. It is our responsibility to respond to the things that happen to us in light of what we ultimately want. And it is our responsibility to create the habits in our lives that will get us there.

The beauty is that with great responsibility comes great power. Power that can change destinies—your own as well as others you encounter. Inside of each of us is the power to become the best version of ourselves or be the victims of our circumstances. You have the greatest power, the strongest strength, the most enabling ability man has ever received in the history of humankind: the freedom to choose. We too can flourish, and we too can crumble—the beauty is that we get to choose.

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