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The Illusion Of Choice, Or Maybe It’s Not An Illusion, Who Knows

Ever made a decision?

Of course you have! You chose to visit the League today. And for this, I salute you. Except that, by visiting the League today . . . maybe you’ve killed us all. You bastard.

When you actually think about the choices, decisions and actions you’ve taken that led to your current life, many of them will probably seem unbelievably haphazard. I got to know one of my closest friends because, on my first evening at uni, I happened to go to the student bar and hang around. Crippling isolation compelled me to strike up hesitant conversation with a couple of people. I nearly didn’t go to the bar and there were dozens of other people I might have talked to instead. The last 5 or so years of my life could have been entirely different if I’d taken a second more or less to think about what I was going to do that evening.

Likewise, I got to know my other closest friend through a series of more or less random happenstances, but again things would have been very different had I not been looking to stay around for another year and he hadn’t been looking for a housemate (and I hadn’t happened to see his advert for a vacant room.) For a start, I very likely wouldn’t be here writing this.

The relationships you hold with your closest friends and loved ones are probably all based on tenuous interconnecting circumstance. Go out, or stay in? Go here or there? And maybe you meet someone pretty randomly and it becomes something special. But all the events, the choices that led to you being where you are at that moment discovering that you both love Bon Jovi, become so fractured and multiplying as you go back in time . . . it’s odd to think about.

Another example. I’ve been with my girlfriend for about a year. We met because I went into a salon where she worked. I courted her, won her and then BROKE DOWN HER FAITH. If another salon had been cheaper, I’d have gone there. Would I have met someone else? If I hadn’t been fired from my previous job, I’d never have met my girlfriend at all. And me even being in London in the first place directly results from a decision\action I took some years ago (I won’t give details) that, had I taken it 30 seconds later, would have affected nothing. I’d have never known, of course. I might still have come here, but it would have been very different.

The thing that gets me is that, if you can so easily form a complex and meaningful relationship with someone through a chance meeting informed by countless decisions (by both parties involved, who have in themselves been affected by countless decisions of countless other people) then how many relationships are we missing? If I decided to strike up more conversations with a customer, who would they turn out to be? Is that girl there, the one who sort of smiled at me as I got off the tube, is she the One? Is she another One? How many people are there walking around that have the potential to deeply change my life that I never met thanks to some tiny choice that I probably wasn’t consciously aware of?

It’s enough to drive a man insane. Maybe my decision to write this blog will cause something to happen. Maybe Patrick Stewart will read it, be impressed, and adopt me as his son and protege.

Anyone who’s seen “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” will know that it’s not a great film – but it’s one of the only films I’ve seen that actually spends time trying to grapple with the headwrenching concept of cause and effect. A lengthy sequence details all the countless tiny interconnected things that, had just one been different, would have resulted in a character not getting hit by a car. When your future can be decided by something a complete stranger does or doesn’t do, on a whim in the space of a second, that can affect many other people and events sequentially and exponentially, doesn’t life seem a bit shaky?

Since we have the glory of retrospect, it’s tempting to look at the consequences of all the things we do and think how easily different everything could have been – and to extrapolate from that all the potential pathways we can lead ourselves down. Such thinking can drive you mad, of course, because while we may have the power to make our own choices it is ONLY in retrospect that we can see the full effect of them. I could engage every one of my customers in detailed conversation today, but it was a more or less desultory comment to a customer recently that revealed him as a fairly successful award-winning musician. Do we really have any choice if we only know what we did after the event? Sure, I could do a great many things today, and all of them are possible – but it only becomes real when I DO them. All the previous branching chances collapse as soon as you do anything at all.

And it’s thinking like this that tends to lead to speculations on parallel universes, where everything gets played out, that every choice or non-choice sends the universe spinning down some different route. I personally reject such thinking, unsupported as it is by anything other than wishful thinking. My adopted philosopy is Didactylos’ “Things just happen. What the hell.” I recommend this stance to everyone.