The fifth futile trip down the hill left me in tears and the cows still thirsty. It had been a particularly hot September and our wind–powered water pump led to a water tank bone dry. This left me with no other alternative than to haul a dozen five-gallon buckets up to the house to fill with the hose. Upon my return, the steep and unpaved drive would leave me with a meager amount of water in each bucket in which to fill the trough for the animals.
How did I get here? “I have two college degrees, and I’m living on a homestead with technology near that of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ for hell’s sake!” I mutter bitterly to myself as I note the absolute inefficacy of the last two hours spent. This is not the first time I asked myself this question. How did I get here? What series of choices led me down a path that has me standing in my shoes right now? It happens more often than I should admit, but country living is not what I had planned for myself. To be perfectly honest, I always had big city dreams.
It is always at some awkward farm or uniquely southern experience that I trace each choice over the years as it framed my life and relationships – and sure enough – now I have a lifestyle in which I says things like, “I have to give the lamb an enema,” or “Sorry, the barn rats ate it,” and more often than not I have manure on my shoes. I wonder about the power of choice and its summation of our character. Just as the fabled pearly gates at which our life’s work will be accounted: what do our choices say about us, do they dictate our value, and do they, alone, solidify our identity?
Our choices have a tendency to speak for us. The choice to put a “Party or Die” tattoo on your neck tells a specific story to future employers, whereas the choice to arrive early for an interview institutes the impression that you are responsible, prepared, and most likely to show up on Monday mornings. These are simply external perceptions the choice set in motion. An obvious complication, of course, is in our perception of others we see only a small fraction of a person’s life.
The phrase ‘walk a mile in her shoes’ comes to mind. How, then, can a choice speak the whole story about who we are? Take the case of Russel Legreid, M.D., a dedicated ENT doctor in his 60s who for his entire career sought to care for and ease the pain of others. A man of service and a community helper faces four felony charges related to drunk driving and will be judged on his choice that ended the life of a two-month-old infant. Will his punishment weigh his selfish negligent choice to drive while intoxicated, or might there be leniency for good deeds done?
Alternatively, I consider what weight does choice play for a young man with a complicated past? Do previous run–ins with the justice system speak loud enough to warrant brutality and denial of judge and jury? For some, choices made long ago echo and reverberate throughout their lives, drowning out anything that comes thereafter. Will Dr. Legreid be remembered as the healer or negligent murderer?
Most assuredly our daily choices carry value. They take on a number and are plugged into an algorithm, then set with a price tag to be sold. These choices of ours are collected by data brokers and sold to other companies as tightly wrapped profiles of us as consumers, voters, and potential borrowers. According to Emilee Rader, associate professor of media information at Michigan State University, these brokers use algorithms within your browsing, shopping, and social media history in order to predict things like your spending patterns, political party affiliation, or sexual orientation.
“The kinds of data they collect include your name, age, Social Security Number, purchase transaction history, web browsing activity, voter registration information, whether you have children living with you or speak a foreign language, the photos you have posted to social media, the listing price of your home, whether you’ve recently had a life event like getting married, your credit score, what kind of car you drive, how much you spend on groceries, how much credit card debt you have and the location history from your mobile phone,” Rader says. (msutoday.com, 2019). These companies are using our cell phone data to put a net worth to our choices. Do you think a GPS blip from your phone or “like” on Facebook determines your value?
Is a person simply a summation of choices, a series of paths chosen from birth to death weaving the pattern of our identities? Surely, I take responsibility for my actions. I know exactly when my life took a sharp left turn and brought me to my wonderfully unpredictable, albeit dirty, country life. My plans to work on stage in New York were dashed that moment I saw him ride by on that loud red motorcycle, arms taut and hair wild – I knew that I would follow him anywhere, and it wouldn’t be to the city.
My southern infatuation inspired all my choices that brought me east, changed my career, made me a wife and then, gloriously, a mother; but do these choices really create my identity? They come tremendously shallow from the mark. Just as I optimistically and fervently hope not to see another person’s life end in a split decision to run away or pull a gun, or witness communities divide on the politicization of wearing masks, I hope we will consider who we are, our values, and our identity as a beautiful and intricate complexity. It is impossible to sum up ourselves and each other in such basic terms of choice.