With Thanksgiving almost upon us, I had intended this blog post to be about gratitude but as I started researching and writing, I decided enough had already been said about the psychological and social benefits of gratitude and that I didn’t have a whole lot to add. After some procrastination, including filing some papers and folding laundry, I shifted focus to choice and, in particular, the gift of choice.

Just over a month ago on October 21st, my father-in-law, David Ganz, passed away. He was a remarkable man in countless ways: a marine who saved his flying instructor from the burning wreckage of a helicopter that had crashed during a training exercise, a hugely successful business man who traveled the world negotiating tough deals while treating his employees like family members, a philanthropist who advocated passionately and tirelessly for the causes he supported and, most of all, a loving, proud and devoted husband, father, and grandfather. I learned so much from my father-in-law and I will miss him terribly. At his funeral, three of his granddaughters read his favorite poem that he had included in a letter to each of them as they graduated from college. Written by Gertrude Housman, it’s called The Gift of Choice.

I came into the world without being asked,
And when the time for dying comes
I shall not be consulted;
But between the boundaries of birth and death
Lies the dominion of Choice:
To be a doer or a dreamer,
To be a lifter or a leaner.
To speak out or remain silent,
To extend a hand in friendship
Or to look the other way:
To feel the sufferings of others
Or to be callous and insensitive.
These are the choices.
It is in the choosing
That my measure as a person
Is determined.

My father-in-law lived by the tenets of this poem and when I heard it for the first time at his funeral, it summed up his approach to life exquisitely.

Can we choose choice?

How much choice we feel we have in our lives is related to our locus of control – the extent to which we each believe that outcomes of events are within, outside or beyond our control. From a psychological perspective, people fall somewhere along a spectrum of internal locus of control at one end to external locus of control at the other end.

People with an internal locus of control feel:

-Responsible for their actions and the outcomes they achieve
-In charge of their destiny, with the power to decide and choose
-Less influenced by the opinions of other people
-A strong sense of belief in their own abilities
-Confident in the face of challenges or adversity
-Autonomous, without the need to turn to others for direction

Those with an external locus of control are likely to:

-Blame outside forces for their circumstances
-Credit luck or chance for any successes
-Believe they cannot change their situation through their own efforts
-Feel hopeless or powerless in the face of difficult situations
-Prone to experiencing learned helplessness
-See choices as limited or non-existent

Clearly, those with an internal locus of control, like my father-in-law, believe they are full of options, in charge of situations and outcomes and very much feel they have the power to choose. Those with an external locus of control…not so much.

The Gift of An Internal Locus of Control

When Gertrude Housman was composing her verse, perhaps a more fitting title would have been ‘The Gift of An Internal Locus of Control.’ Yes, it’s a dreadful, clunky title, with zero poetic quality, but one that more accurately describes the essence of what she is describing. The great heroes and inspirational figures in our lives have been able to be doers and lifters and to speak out and to choose because of the very fact they were operating from a position of self-belief and confidence. That’s what really gave them the gift of choice.