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Bend the Stick: A Short Story on Choice
When my son was 15 years old, he was like most 15 year old boys today. He was engrossed in games, college, computeres, phones, girls, and living the youthful life that contains no worries and no responsibilities outside of house chores, homework, and his Subaru. Occasionally there were little consequences imposed upon him by angry parental units. But we know these are little consequences, the big ones come later in life.
Often I’d discuss (and still do) large Philosophical, Epistemological, and Metaphysical concepts with him to get his brain to ‘hurt’…as he puts it. We’d have a good time with it mostly but sometimes he catches on and as a father I would get to witness the birth of some personal awareness in my son. For me, teaching him the things that no other person or teacher can teach him is my highest order, my first duty, and my primary. I fear that I might not be here on this earth to help him in his adult life when he encounters those life moments that make all men stop and look inward on themselves. So we talk a lot about crazy things. At this age (and even now) he didn’t yet have a full understanding of the concepts of cause and effect, or more importantly…choice. To adults that have some life under their belt these concepts are much more than the abstract mumbo jumbo we hear in lectures and on PBS. They are as real as a heart attack.
One day I picked him up from school and he helped me finish up some work that was yet to be done. When we finished I asked him if he’d be up for some Wendy’s and a frosty. The answer was and still is always “yes”.
We did the Wendy’s thing and as he was finishing up the tail end of his frosty I asked him, "Son, do you think man possesses choice? Can you exercise choice?”
“Dad…really? Another one?” (The previous one was a philosophical analysis of a stop sign).
“Yup. Have a go at it kid. Gimme your best shot”
He paused for a long time and said, “I’d rather not. Your questions never make sense until the end, and getting to the end hurts my brain.” He snickered a little and went back to an apparently serious study of the end of his straw, which was making that sound that signifies the cup is empty. He was completely ignoring the sound.
“Are you going to make me stand on the side of the road again and stare at a stop sign and watch cars go by?” I said, “No, but I can’t guarantee that we won’t stop somewhere on the way home. I’ll do my best not to embarrass you. So does choice exist and do you possess it?”
“Dad I’m fifteen. Fifteen year olds don’t have choice. We just do what we are told…sometimes.” He was rattling this part off as we were walking out of Wendy’s and piling into the truck. He mumbled something else but I ignored it. We pulled out onto the road heading back to the house and I said, “You don’t think you possess choice?”
With a very dry glare and straight face…“Nope.”
At that moment there was a large break in the traffic and we were passing a stand of trees. I pulled the truck over onto the shoulder and shut it down. I got out and walked around to the passenger side door and opened it. He rolled his eyes and got out.
I pointed to large oak tree that was standing off the road. “I need you to go over there and pick out a stick for me.”
“A STICK!!!..REALLY?” The incredulity was glorious.
“Yes, a stick. You pick which one you want. Make it a little long.”
He wandered over to the tree and fished around a minute or two and came back with a stick and presented it to me. “No you keep it. It’s your stick not mine. What I need you to do is bend the stick.” Now he’s staring without blinking and I think he’s breathing but can’t really tell. I can’t help but giggle. His frustration is showing itself in his face and body language. I said, “Calm down for a moment. This will make a mountain of sense to you if you will do it and then answer some questions.”
He raises the stick to his eye level and with one hand on each end, he bends the stick. He then lets the tension go, drops the stick to the ground, and says, “There!! I bent the stick!!”
“Did you choose which stick to pick up?”…“I DON’T KNOW…” I said, “Stop and think son. Be quiet for just one moment. Use your mind…did you choose which stick to pick up?” He replied, “Yes”.
“And you know this because there were a million other sticks?”
“Did you choose how far to bend it?”
“Could you have chosen to break it?”
“Do you think you made a conscious choice to NOT break it?”
“Uhhh…YEEAAAA…you said to bend it. That means don’t break it Dad!”
“Could you have chosen to bend it a little more?”
I paused for a moment and put my hand on his shoulder and leaned into him just a little. “Do you think you could have made the choice to NOT pick up a stick and therefore to not play my silly game?” To this question he was silent for a longer moment, and then he replied, “I think I could have said no Dad.”
I let him go and stood in front of him squarely and asked him if he now thought he possessed choice. “Yea…I think I do, and the next time you ask me to get out of the truck on the side of a highway just to pick up a stick, I think I will choose NO!”
We laughed and poked at each other for a moment and I said, “Son it’s one of the most important lessons I will ever teach you. Because you are human you have a brain that possesses the faculty of reason. Your mind uses reason every moment of every living day to exercise choice. Choice exists in every action you take. It even exists in the actions you refuse to take. Even if you had refused to pick up a stick, you would have still made a choice. Never forget that you do in fact have choice. It’s one of the most important things that make you different than that tree over there.” I pointed…“or that plant, or that bird. They live and die through the exercise of DNA programed instinct. They do exactly the same thing their parents did, on down the line going back a million years, the same exact way in every respect. You can’t even run from having choice.”
I let him think on it for a few minutes there on the side of the road. I watched him stare at the ground and look left, and then look right. He looked at me and said, “I understand.”
Guess what…you chose to read this.