#5 What role does choice play in identity development and working with physical sensation or emotion?

Note:  As detailed elsewhere, children’s art invokes for me the curiosity, wonder, and “beginner’s mind” that makes for an especially productive conversation. “As children we fall in love with the wonder of being alive,” Tsoknyi Rinpoche taught, with “the things around us fascinat[ing] us” – inviting people to make space for mindful practices (including mindful listening) that move us towards, “falling back in love with the sheer wonder of being alive.”

“We humans use words to communicate, words to describe and characterize issues, words to characterize human differences and words to form judgments; ‘what words mean,’ then, is a complicated and vexed subject. Words have to be interpreted – and most of us interpret what words mean through our own ‘private dictionaries.’ If we therefore assume that our definition is the definition, we might be setting ourselves up for gaping disagreements and misunderstandings arising from the clashing meaning of certain words. The real skill here may be learning to hear what the other person intended to say according to their dictionary – not according to our own.” -Bruce Shulman

The question of “choice” is a sensitive one in relation to sexual orientation, given how it’s sometimes been used as a cudgel against the gay community.

In response, this has become a question that for many is absolutely settled – and portrayed as largely irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

The unspoken insinuation is that there is only one way to think about choice in this discussion.  Closer attention to the larger conversation, however, reveals at least a couple of ways choice shows up in the lives of all human beings – including those who experience same-sex attraction.

1. Choosing a feeling – or whether to feel something.The way it is typically represented, the notion of “choice” is presented as a decision whether or how much to feel a particular attraction (or not).

It’s hard to tell how many people actually believe this possibility.  Within an American pop culture that insists we can ‘just choose’ to be a lot of things – happy, wealthy, beautiful –  there are definitely some who see emotion as immediately malleable in this fashion.

But for most of the rest of us, it becomes clear that this is a fairly ridiculous proposition – and one that doesn’t hold up in real-life experience.

As the narrative typically unfolds, people resist feelings of same-sex attraction and then spend time doing things to either “make the feelings go away” or “try to feel something else.” Similar to other attempts at controlling or forcing feelings to be a certain way, these people soon discover how much this really just “doesn’t work.”  Even if emotions are ‘successfully’ controlled or managed short term – over the long-term, this particularly aggressive way of relating to emotions virtually always backfires.

And that’s precisely why these stories often end with some kind of conclusion not simply at the potential harm of forcing or controlling feelings in this way – but about choice itself:

  • “When I came out to them even though there was a lot of heartache and tears and it’s a struggle and still awkward to this today, they are willing to talk about it and they accept that I am struggling with these feelings and it is valid and it is not just a choice” (FB-ER)
  • “I really have a testimony that you did not choose this. That you were born this way and he would choose this?” (FB-A)
  • “Orientation is no more a choice then Race!”
  • “Strong sexual compulsions are not conscious choices, whether genetic, environmental, or a combination thereof.”
  • “I don’t believe a gay person has any choice in their being gay.”

As reflected here, the failure of this first view of choice in ‘real life’ becomes evidence for accepting one’s particular sexual attraction as central to one’s identity:

  • “I realized I really am gay and I can’t just pray this a way I can’t just snap my fingers and have this change” (FB-St)
  • “At that time when I came to this realization that yes I am gay” (FB-EM)

To underscore the point, individuals often emphasize the larger difficulties faced by the gay community as context for why any notion of relevant “choice” is arguably ridiculous:

  • Nobody in their right mind would choose this…choose to be ostracized by their whole entire family. Nobody would.
  • Why anyone at the age of 12 or 13 would choose to be LGBT and then subject themselves to the tortures that ensue is senseless.
  • Why would a person choose to be something that can result in: 1) Verbal, mental, emotional, and physical abuse from family, supposed friends, and your community. 2) Being ostracized by family, supposed friends, and your community. 3) Being discriminated against when seeking employment and housing. 4) Being outright murdered.
  • I didn’t choose this and it’s the last thing I would want, the last thing, because I don’t want this kind of burden that I feel. (FB-SH)
  • I don’t understand how a lot of, sometimes a lot of people just think that it’s a choice or, you know, we choose to feel this way. “Are you kidding me?” Like, “why would someone choose to be this different? It causes so many problems in your life!” I mean, you get shunned by people who don’t understand, you get shunned by people who don’t want to understand. There are so many issues, “Why on earth would I choose to be this way?” (FB-WA)

In this way, “choice” ends up virtually always being framed in this one particular way.  Simply put, “being gay is not a choice…can anyone have any doubt after hearing the story of my own life?”

Case closed. The focus subsequently becomes living out these feelings – and insisting that others also embrace them as central to one’s identity.

This becomes the de facto definition of choice, whenever it comes up:  “Every now and again I would get comments like, ‘Are you choosing the right thing?’ And I would say to myself, well I tried for a really long time to be straight and to do the straight thing” (FB-ST)

Any subsequent choice for the individual experiencing same-sex attraction is subsequently de-emphasized, with the emphasis going to the choices of those around them.  One mother, for instance, spoke of eventually realizing “the most important choice wasn’t [her son with same-sex attraction]. It was hers.”

In this way, one particular framing of “choice” can shut down, overlook and distract from other ways of thinking about choice – fundamentally distinct from the first. It’s striking how little attention is paid to any other way of thinking about choice – including the following three:

2. Choosing how to relate to a feeling.While there is clearly often no choice in whether to feel something, others emphasize the choice available in how to respond, relate to and work with that feeling.

This gentle approach contrasts with the forcing, controlling and fixing that we are all accustomed to doing.  One man spoke of learning the wisdom of “not trying so hard to get rid of these feelings, but accepting that they are there and owning the fact that I have these feelings and that is okay” (VH-BLH).

 Like the first approach, this perspective acknowledges the harm that can be done from an aggressive attempt to control or force or fix particular emotions or feelings. Unlike the first approach, this perspective does not assume that is the only way to work with these feelings.

By gently watching and noticing these feelings, they can be held as a meaningful part of one’s experience – without either pushing them away or grasping on to them. “It’s okay that I feel this way,” one person commented, highlighting that rather than determining the rest of his life, “I still have choice and I still have agency and I still have the power to have the life that I want to have” (VH-DEC)

This experience of navigating particular emotions is clearly not unique to those with same sexual attraction, since from a mindfulness perspective, virtually every human being makes choices moment by moment about how to relate to particular thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations.

For some, this insight opens up more space to explore how exactly they want to work with particular feelings or physical sensations.  For others, however, the questioning of any feeling or physical sensation doesn’t feel okay:  “It’s not normal to go against with how you feel and so I think for me being gay is normal” (FB-DA)

3. Choosing whether to identify with feelings. The specific decision of whether to identify with a particular feeling or emotion (or physical sensation) is another way choice shows up in this conversation – in other words, whether to adopt that feeling into one’s identity.

For some, they decide to embrace certain feelings as fundamental who they are – subsequently living them out in virtually everything that follows.

For others, they do not see these feelings as central to who they are.  One person who spoke of “owning the fact that I have these feelings and that is okay” added, “that doesn’t have to determine everything about my future.  And it doesn’t necessarily have to define who you are; those feelings aren’t all of you” (VH-BLH)

Rather than embracing same-sex feelings as central to who they are, these individuals acknowledge them as a meaningful part of their experience, but only as part of that experience.  Reflecting on a period of great despair and hopelessness, one man said, “If I could go back…I wish I could just tell myself that these feelings and what you’re experiencing don’t define you; it’s not who you are. I realize now who I am – I am a son of God first and foremost. These feelings don’t define who I am as a person and I think if I really could have grasped that concept at that time I would have been able to save myself so much heartache” (VH-DEC)

For others, they have felt heartache from resisting particular feelings – and not embracing them.  This, then, becomes a choice relevant to all human beings: Does this feeling or physical sensation represent who I am – or not?

4. Choosing how to act. A final view of choice is simply how to act in relation to one’s feeling – as one person said: “I know I can choose my behavior.  I didn’t choose these attractions.  I didn’t choose to feel this way – but I can choose my actions.  And whatever anyone else wants to say, we can chose what we do, we can choose our sexual behavior.  We have choices about that” (VH-JTB)

 This shows up in the larger conversation about love quite a bit – especially given the dominance of a view of love that just “hits us” out of the blue…and which we are indebted to following.  By contrast, “Love is an activity, not a passive affect,” esteemed psychotherapist Eric Fromm writes. “Love and non-love, as good and evil, are objective and not purely subjective phenomena…Love is as love does.” He continues, “Even if one is feeling love, if they are not doing anything to help, that person is not loving. If a woman told us that she loved flowers, and we saw that she forgot to water them, we would not believe in her ‘love’ for flowers. Love is the active concern for the life and growth of that which we love. Where this active concern is lacking, there is no love.”[1]

Shakespeare similarly wrote, “They do not love that do not show their love.” And Albert Einstein himself one said, “Gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love.” “Love is not an involuntary magnetic attraction or [an] irresistible impulse,” Erich Fromm added: “To love somebody is not just a strong feeling. True love is an act of will – both an intention and an action…It is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise, a commitment and ultimately an art.”[2]

These counter-cultural notions of love and choice raise other interesting questions.

Attraction and desire:  Aren’t they one and the same?  In particular, this view of love-that-is-chosen stands at odds with how we often talk of attraction and desire as one and the same. Indeed, the way we commonly talk, there is no separation between what we want and our desires. If you’re attracted to something, then of course, that’s what you want, right?

However, as reflected above, these other views of choice underscore an awareness deeper than feelings or thoughts – one that creates space and opportunity for choice and desire to come online. This opens up the possibility of a love guided by something deeper than felt attractions alone. As Stephen Kendrick writes, “Instead of following your heart…[choose] to lead it.” He continues, “The world says to follow your heart, but if you are not leading it, then someone or something else is.”[3]

From the second perspective, there is a space to explore the bigger question of how to work with any emotion that arises.  For those who experience same-sex attraction, then, they might ask as one person remarked, “who am I?  These same-sex attractions – do I want to embrace them?” (VH-JN)

Multiplying space, multiplying options.  For many, the choice will be yes.  For others, they may say, essentially ‘that is what I want, but I can’t have it or shouldn’t pursue it.  That’s where my attraction is inclined, but it’s not what I want most deeply.”

As one person stated, “I may have had these feelings but that doesn’t determine that I have to live life a certain way…Being gay may be what some people want to do and that is there choice, but for me that is not what I wanted.”  He continued;

Really, I look back, where could my life be? I could be gay, I could go and live a gay life, I could have chosen not to….I could be dead; I could have killed myself. There are so many choices I could have made in my life and I’m so glad looking back now that I kept what was important to me and what was important for me to have in my life as a central focus because I can’t imagine what life would be like without Erin and without my boys. I’m just so grateful I am where I am and I didn’t let this in my life control where I went. (VH-DEC)

He continued, “Some people would probably say, ‘You’re not happy; you’re just suppressing things.’ They can think what they want but I can generally say that I am happy and that I wouldn’t want it any other way” (VH-DEC)

Depending on how we choose to relate to our emotional or sexual experience, depending on whether we identify with it and act on it – our body, mind and overall life are shaped in a particular direction over time.

This is not to say that “choice” is the only thing at play either.  Life narratives are complex – and involve so many things beyond simply choice – “People aren’t simply consciously deciding on one path or the other.  There are aspects of their different paths that go beyond conscious choice–degree of desperation, degree of indoctrination (meant to be a neutral term here), life experiences, etc.”

In line with the overall blog aim, the purpose of this essay is to make space for not only various ways of thinking about choice – but for the individuals and families involved in this conversation.  Without acknowledging the various perspectives on choice, the space in which choice can operate can shrink and constrict to the point that no choice exists at all.

As mentioned earlier, the dominant conversation typically only presumes two kinds of choices:  “As I began to meet more people who had same sex attraction in the church I realized there were kind of two camps, or two categories that people fell into, or so I thought. I thought there were these guys who were actively gay and open about it and were living the gay lifestyle but not so much the church aspect, or that they were kind of living this double life and to me that just didn’t feel comfortable. Then there were the other groups who were just kind of white knuckling it and just were trying to suppress their feelings and to reject their attractions” (VH-JO)

This kind of a bifurcation and dichotomy results in subtle (or not so subtle) pressure.  Indeed, once it is taken for granted that there is no other way of thinking about choice, then it follows there is no other way to move forward. As one person stated, “There was a time that I thought because of what I was viewing and where my thoughts went, that as soon as I graduated from high school I had no choice – I was destined to be in a homosexual relationship; I thought that was what had to happen” (VH-SF).  Another person added, “It kind of came to the point in that relationship where I thought, ‘Okay, this is it, I’m gay, I can’t do anything about it. I might as well just live it.’ But yet deep down in I knew that wasn’t true, but I said it outwardly” (VH-BLS).

As already mentioned, the first kind of choice is an impossible task to ask of anyone – somehow “choosing to feel something we don’t feel.”  Like any other kind of feeling, we all learn quickly that this is no way to work with emotional experience.  As illustrated above, however, that doesn’t mean there is no other way to work with emotional experience. And for many, as detailed above, a more gentle way of working with emotional experience opens up a pathway to live with integrity in relation to both these feelings and their particular faith and religious tradition:

  • It was a great eye opening experience to know that I don’t have to live the way the world tells me I have to live. I can find my own way of living and there are other options from what the world tells me I have to do. (VH-JO).
  • I think people need to know that there are options. Personally I believe anyone who experiences same-sex attraction is faced a whole lot of tough choices. None of them are easy no matter what path one choices. It’s going to come with a lot of difficulty. But I want people to know this choice, this choice I made, that Anissa and I made together, is possible and can bring happiness and hope. We have been able to do that. (VH-BAO)

 To summarize:  In contrast to how choice is sometimes used to pressure or guilt-trip individuals, I adamantly believe in making respectful space for the different places people end up falling in terms of their choice.  This is something that can happen on both sides – as one woman mentioned “I’ve got some Backlash for – people get angry at me for not being with a woman” (FB-ME).

In this, I agree with the gay philosopher John Corvino’s exposition on choice, in particular, his insistence that respect can be offered regardless of how choice is framed or the individual choices people make about emotion, identity and life direction.

Flirting with Curiosity Questions:

  • When you refer to “choice” in this conversation, what do you mean?
  • Have you seen “choice” used in a way that applied pressure to either side of the conversation – e.g., “you have a choice!” vs. “you don’t have a choice!”
  • What would it mean to broaden the conversation to look at various senses of the word choice? Do you think other meanings of the term are relevant in this conversation?
  • In what ways might a broadened view of choice ensure more space for possibility and agency?
  • In what ways might a broadened view of choice feel potentially threatening, dangerous or distracting? Can that be mitigated – or is it a reason not to talk about this?

Notes:  [If you have other questions to add, accounts to include, or further clarifications to suggest, please post them below!]

[1] Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York:  Harper Perennial, 1956/2006), 21, 25, 83, 120.

[2] Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York:  Harper Perennial, 1956/2006), 5, 57.

[3] Stephen Kendrick and Alex Kendrick, The Love Dare (Nashville:  B&H Books, 2008),  viii.


You Might Also Like

No Comments

Leave a Reply