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  • tuesday ceramics science and nature camp hannah plays the role of an orb weaving spider blindly trying to sense the direction of a vibration in the web in tuesday ceramics science and nature camp
Is Choice Merely an Illusion or is it Real?

One of the supposed joys of retirement is that you can now do whatever you want. Presumably you wake up each morning and ask yourself, “Okay, Self, what do you want to do today?” You can go fishing, play golf, read the newspaper, go shopping or restore that antique car that has been waiting for you for forty years. At least, that’s the storied view of retirement. 


In fact, while I assume that this is the reality for many retirees, it has never been mine. Since retiring from my role of director at Open Connections back in 2009, I have remained active and involved with OC as a Board member, chair of the Development Committee, contributor to this magazine, and all-around kibitzer to the “A-Team” (Co-Directors Julia Bergson-Shilcock, Mike Hilbert and Rick Sleutaris). I have also tackled other endeavors, all in an effort to tip the paradigm from compulsory schooling to a (more) youth/self-directed approach (such as what OC offers). Towards that end, I spent a number of years collaborating with other educators in the alternative education field and helped to form a group called The Tipping Point, which went on to launch a website ( Most recently, a significant amount of my time has been focused on launching Natural Creativity Center, a resource center with a similar philosophy to OC, but with a very different target demographic (think very low income families who have been less-than-satisfied with the Philadelphia public school system, and are seeking an alternative to traditional schooling). 


As anyone who knows me at all realizes, my “work” is only technically my profession. It is more like a calling and maybe even an obsession. Regardless, it is so much a part of my identity that I honestly haven’t been able to find anything else that I would rather do. Even time spent with my six darling grand-ones is part of the same journey: I am thinking about the process implications of each interaction as I am playing with them. I can’t, nor do I want to, stop observing, contemplating, and hopefully learning about such matters as human motivation, ways to nourish collaboration and creativity, what are better ways for adults to support young people, etc. etc. etc. In short, I keep searching for ways to create a better world. 


I bring this up here because I have been thinking a lot recently about the nature of choice and, more specifically, the sense of freedom that one has in life. I’ve been wondering if we have only the illusion of choice in our lives, or at the very least far less true self-direction than we like to think we have, or strive to have—in retirement or at any other time in life. 

I started all this questioning when I found myself waking up in the morning and asking myself, not what do I want to do today but rather what do I have to do today? What have I committed to doing, what must I do in order to meet certain obligations (legal, financial, relational), what have I set myself up to do in order to accomplish various ends and achieve certain results? Even when I was clear that most, if not all, of what was on my schedule were things that I put there, that I had the “choice” to add or not, I began to have the same overriding sense of a lack of choice—of freedom. It was the antithesis of the feeling that I had been led to expect (especially in retirement!). 


In fact, I came to realize that there were mornings when I awoke with the same general lack of a sense of control over my life that I had come to develop as a youth in school. I really don’t remember what it was like when I first started kindergarten, but I assume that I wasn’t feeling any scheduling pressure at that time. It was not until I turned twelve that I can recall feeling that all-pervasive sense of mild to moderate dread that came to worsen each year of advancement. This continued all through college, even though paper assignments and exams were far less frequent than in prep school. “What is due today?” I would ask myself, always having an assignment of some sort hanging over my head. 


In short, all through my school years, I didn’t have even the illusion of control. I felt totally driven by the expectations of my teachers. There were assignments that had to be completed, lessons that had to be learned, tests that had to be taken, even extra-curricular activities that were merely another form of obligation. In grades 9-12, there was also required summer reading (four massive books) competing for my attention, so there was never a true sense of vacation—which, as I look back on it, was supposed to feel like a temporary form of retirement, wasn’t it? Weekends, Christmas and Spring breaks, even evenings on the rare occasions that I finished all of my homework before bedtime were lived in this dense fog of never-ending responsibility. No matter how much I accomplished, there was always something more that I thought, and felt, that I should be doing. 


My goal in the choice of an occupation was to escape this pervasive sense of always being under the weight of obligation. I wanted to wake up each morning and say to myself, “Self, today is a day to fill in whatever way that you want. Be sure not to put into it anything that you don’t want to do.” Of course, there may be some things that, in and of themselves, wouldn’t be a happy choice—for instance, vacuuming my apartment or getting my teeth cleaned at the dentist—but even these would represent ways of achieving goals that I had happily chosen(a clean domicile and healthy gums, for example). 


I was remarkably successful in choosing a career that included day after day of joyful awakenings, days when I couldn’t wait to get to work in order to pursue my goals with people I liked a lot. (I even met my life partner through my “work”.) At the same time, however—to finally get to the point of this essay—there has always still been the possibly inevitable sense of a lack of pure choice, a feeling of obligation, far more often than I anticipated. 


In a way, this sounds a lot like marriage, or becoming a parent; many choices ultimately include frequent encounters with a sense of obligation. But does this mean that we have only the illusion of choice? If the sense of obligation begins to outweigh the sense of pleasure in the choice, the answer would almost certainly seem to be yes, and it would seem to me to be time to reconsider the choice. But/And most of the time, when the choice was the right one in the first place, it suggests asking oneself, seriously, “Now, tell me again, why did I make this choice?” Reflection that is meant to refresh one’s memory as to the anticipated pluses seems like a good idea in moments like this; when the heavy hand of obligation comes knocking, perhaps it is time to recall the (hopefully) many times that those desired pluses have been realized. And if that isn’t enough to lead to a feeling of, “Oh, right, that’s why I made that decision,” consider this option: 


With the original goal in mind, put the current dilemma into the form of a Challenge Statement, such as: 

  • “How to make marketing (or cooking dinner) fun (again?)” 
  • “How to enjoy transporting my son/daughter to yet another soccer game” 
  • “How to make this meeting (or business trip) personally rewarding and even enjoyable in the moment, not just as a way to ensure keeping my job” 
  • “How to appreciate my boss’s knowledge and concerns as valuable resources rather than challenges in my way” 


Ah, yes—OC’s old friend, the How-to—the tool that helps turn the illusion of choice into real choice. Turning worries into How-tos can help to make each morning’s sense of the day ahead feel like an opportunity and not an obligation. Writing them out can feed one’s sense of competence and optimism where previously there was only discouragement and even anxiety. When one gets successful at using How-tos in this way, the difference between employment and retirement largely dissolves. Real choice means that you are happy in the Now; the rest is just details. 


Although I am looking at this through the lens of a seventy-two-year-old “retiree,” I am confident that you may draw similar conclusions for your own life now, whether you are a current OC youth or teen, a millennial, or an OC parent in your forties. Imagine a world where young people and adults are living self-directed lives, full of purpose and fulfillment.