The Infinite Roads Not Taken

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by John Zielinski

There’s a meme that frequently makes the rounds on Facebook. Taken at surface value it’s an admonition to take responsibility for your life, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and stop blaming things that aren’t working out on circumstances or other people. It all sounds so positive; so American. It’s also total BS.

The essence of the meme, if you haven’t seen it, is that your destiny is completely under your own control. Consider that for a moment. If you were born an impoverished, black female with a genetic disorder that results in physical disabilities in rural Mississippi in 1949, do you really have the same options – the same control of your destiny – as the healthy, white son of a multimillionaire born in New York City that same year? Anyone who answers “yes” has clearly bought into a fantasy. The constraints are different and that means that the options that are open to the individual are different as well. Different options mean that the available choices are different, too. You can’t choose an option that’s not available to you. There’s another angle to this as well.

Every one of us makes a multitude of decisions – choices – on a daily basis. Most of these are about trivialities. Should I have the cheeseburger for lunch or the burger without cheese? Then again, are there any genuinely trivial decisions? Each choice changes the available paths into the future.

If I choose to hit the snooze bar on the alarm clock instead of hopping right out of bed on Monday morning, the start of my day is delayed by 8 minutes. A lot can, and does, happen in 8 minutes. There can be a car or airplane crash. The weather can take a nasty turn. A crazed gunman can take a building full of hostages. Any one of those can place constraints on my choices for that day. I may not be able to take the road or flight that I had planned. I may not be able to get past flooding. The building in which I work may be inaccessible. Even if none of these things happen during the 8 minutes that I’m snoozing, fresh constraints may be put on me later. If I had left the house at my usual time traffic may have been fine, but because I left later traffic has had a chance to build to a snarl. Because of the traffic snarl I get to work almost an hour late and miss an important meeting with a potential client who wasn’t able to wait around for me. Because I missed the meeting the prospect got miffed and took his business elsewhere. Because of that my company missed out on several million dollars of revenue. Because the company lost the deal my boss sacked me. This chain continues infinitely, and it was all because of 1 small, seemingly trivial choice. It highlights that our choices affect more than just ourselves.

The choices that each of us make can, and often do, change the options that are available to other people. The man who chose to have his eyes focused on the screen of his smartphone instead of on traffic rear-ends the car in front of him. The driver of that car (that was standing still because of traffic) ends up in the hospital emergency room for an MRI that shows damage to his neck. The damage affects the ability for him to perform certain tasks for the rest of his life. He ends up unable to do the tasks associated with his job and files for disability benefits. Since those benefits are significantly less than what he was making previously there’s a cascading effect on not only his life and the lives of his dependents, but on the businesses and people who were the beneficiaries of his spending. Just another chain from a single, seemingly trivial choice. One guy chose to look at his smartphone rather than traffic.

A couple of years ago there were a number of people who decided that they were going to take a specific action to show their displeasure concerning certain events. Some of them chose to vote for a third-party candidate for president. It was a candidate who had no actual chance of winning. Some of them wrote in a candidate who also had no real chance of winning. Some of them simply chose to sit out the election and didn’t vote. These personal decisions, in some cases, had profound effects on the country as a whole.

According to some assessments, the difference between Donald Trump winning the Electoral College vote and Hillary Clinton doing the same in 2016 came down to 114,000 votes cast in specific states. Consider that for a moment. Had 114,001 people who voted third-party or who had written in a name or who didn’t bother to get out and vote for Clinton in those states simply made a different decision literally everything that’s happened since then would – yes, would not could – have been different. Would it have been better or would it have been worse? Better and worse are value judgments, so it depends on your perspective. We can say with certainty, however, that things would have been different.

And so, I go back to the meme mentioned at the beginning of this piece. No, your destiny is most definitely not completely under your own control. It’s not even mostly under your control. On the other hand, your seemingly simple decisions can have a profound effect on the lives of so many others.

Supplemental Reading:

The June 28, 1952 issue of Collier’s magazine included a short story by Ray Bradbury titled A Sound of Thunder. You may not know the story, but you know the premise. It’s about how an apparently trivial event can profoundly change the future. If you haven’t read it, you should. It may be science fiction, but it makes an important point as does all good science fiction.

A PDF version of the piece (as part of an academic exercise) is available on the web.

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