Making Hard Choices

Recently I read an article by Ruth Chang, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, and then watched her TED talk.  The talk had to do with what makes some choices hard; the article was closely related to that but also about being the person you want to be and creating a new you. When she refers to hard choices, she’s talking about decisions we make between two options that are “‘on a par'” or between alternatives that are equal in value and are difficult to choose between because of that. There is no wrong answer, but they may not be equally good either. What she argues is that the choice we make must be something we can stand behind and commit to and thereby turn it into a position of value. To me, the strongest statement she makes in the article is “when we choose between options that are on a par, we make ourselves the authors of our own lives.” This assertion reverberated with me because it sounds very similar to what Ruth tells Al when he’s at loose ends. She tells him in S6E6, “we are the authors of our lives.” (I doubt the writers knew about Ruth Chang. Her TED talk was given on June 18, 2014 and the filming of S6 was over by that time. However, her earliest articles on this subject appeared in 1997 and thereafter she continued to write about this subject regularly.) Like so many interesting issues in human behavior, there are both psychological and philosophical ways to view them.

There are many hard choices confronting Martin and Louisa. We have been discussing the personality traits of these two characters. Presumably these would play a role in how they would go about deciding between the options they must face now. Ruth Chang’s article uses the tradition of making resolutions for the New Year as a starting point and ends by noting: “Our task then is to reflect on what kind of person we can commit to being when making those choices.” I think we can put this to work for the situation at hand, especially because it relates to making changes that can lead to being a different person, and change is what Martin plans for himself.

I’m going to take a stab at some of the hard “on a par” choices Martin and Louisa have to make and see what all of you think about these and what others you come up with.

1. Louisa must decide whether to return to the house. The alternative is to live in Portwenn and be separated (right now she can’t leave because of her recent surgery). This decision would be on a par because Louisa loves Martin and wants to be married and parent JH with his father; however, Louisa knows being married to Martin is difficult and Martin would continue to have a relationship with JH even if they lived apart.

2. Martin must decide whether to confide in Louisa and admit he needs her help. The alternative is to decide that he continues to be unable to have an intimate conversation with Louisa. This decision is on a par because Martin wants to be with Louisa and he recognizes that she has been very disturbed by his secrecy and unwillingness to reach out to her; however, Martin struggles to allow anyone into his inner world and he knows it will be arduous to convert himself into someone who asks for help and shares his thoughts.

3. They must decide whether to seek counseling, marriage or individual or both. The alternative is to try to reconcile on their own, possibly with Ruth’s help. This decision is on a par because both Martin and Louisa are aware that a counselor could be helpful and counseling has been recommended by both Edith and Ruth; however, Martin is skeptical of most counselors and likes to manage his own care, and both of them will want to go to counseling in a location not well-known by Portwenn villagers. Finding a way to budget the time for that may be too much trouble.

I could go on, but I’ll leave it to you to suggest other hard choices. I’d like to consider how this philosophical view can be combined with the psychological traits we’ve been discussing too.

In addition, I’d like to refer you to an article by Ruth Chang titled “Commitments, Reasons, and the Will” in which she discusses internal commitments. On page 78, Chang explains, “a promise to love and to cherish has greater normative significance than that of incurring an obligation through a promise. This is because it is backed by an internal commitment—something the promisor has done all by himself that gives his subsequent promise special significance or meaning.” We know Martin is a moral man, and we consider Louisa moral as well. They have taken the step to get married after having many vacillations in their interaction as a couple. Now that they’ve taken a vow to be together, they have made an internal commitment that Chang makes a strong argument about — it changes who they are and the significance of their relationship. That has to play some sort of role in what they decide to do and in what kind of people they want to commit to being.

Originally posted 2015-01-14 17:16:21.

10 thoughts on “Making Hard Choices

  1. Linda D.

    Karen. You continue to amaze me as to the great topics of discussion you continue to generate! I enjoy TED talks and this one by Ruth Chang was well done. As well, her article is food for thought. Your suggestions of 3 “on par” decisions were excellent Karen!

    Martin must decide whether to solve his blood phobia once and for all in order to resume the work he loves. That is of course, to be an vascular surgeon in London. He would choose this alternative knowing that Louisa would be unhappy living there and have to give up her job. He would be aware that she might not relocate with him and therefore, he would be living away from his wife and son. The family could survive as a long distance relationship or he would not be a part of their lives except for an occasional weekend visit. His other choice is to give up on the idea of resuming his career as a GP and accept that the blood phobia is going to come and go. By doing this, Louisa will remain happy and he will keep his family intact and remain the village GP.

  2. Linda D.

    I should have said that his other choice was to give up on the idea of being being a SURGEON and accept that the blood phobia is going to come and go.

  3. Post author

    Aww, Linda, thanks. As you can tell, I’m a geek and love dabbling in all sorts of areas. This blog has given me a great excuse for reading many articles and thinking about many subjects that I get a real charge out of.

    And you have been a wonderful participant. I like your example. I wonder if there would be any way for him to combine living in Portwenn with doing surgery somewhere, like Truro. It’s not London, and it might be hard for them to live in Portwenn. But he is confronted with two on par alternatives regardless.

  4. Post author

    Well, despite Linda’s nice compliment that I am good at generating topics of discussion, this post hasn’t been much of a comment generator. I’m hoping that the “Reply” button problem is part of the reason and I still haven’t fixed that. I will make a serious effort to get to the bottom of it today. I see that I have generated some interest and the post has been read by quite a few people.

    If I can fix the “Reply” issue, and there are still very few comments, I will post something else. I actually have a couple of other ideas, including one that was suggested by Santa. The blog will go on!!

  5. Santa Traugott

    Responding first to your last paragraph: Yes, indeed. I think the fact that Louisa has made a commitment to her marriage, and now thinks of herself as a wife, means that this situation is different than the ones where she previously took flight. Even if she had succeeded in getting to Spain, and spent several weeks there, I believe she would ultimately have concluded that she owed it to her marriage vows (and James Henry) to make at least one last effort to fix things. Because that’s her basic choice — to give up, once and for all, or to go forward. Just as Martin’s basic choice, as you point out, is to either find the courage to look within himself in order to change, or to “let the poor girl go.”

    It sometimes seems that people will do almost anything to avoid the necessity of making changes within themselves – changing the way they look at things, the way they behave, the way they view themselves. Louisa will have to choose between her self-image as the injured party here, or revising her view to one in which she accepts responsibility for her part in the marriage breakdown.

    In Martin’s case, he actually chose to change his career path instead of seeking the therapy he needed in order to continue as a surgeon.

    It’s interesting, BTW, that Ruth appeared to make an equivalence between his giving up a career as a surgeon, something that he loved, and giving up Louisa (by shutting her out). The implication, I guess, is that in both cases, he felt he didn’t deserve to have something that made him happy.

    I wonder if in giving up as a surgeon and retraining as a GP, the same thing was going on as when he didn’t “go after” Louisa — that is, he felt that he couldn’t — that it would do no good. So my point is, sometimes the first part of the work is getting people to realize that they actually do have choices — they don’t have to be stuck.

    It seems to me also that the most fundamental and consequential choices are in how you choose to frame things in your own mind. If Louisa continues to frame her marriage as one in which Martin is difficult, immovable and life with him is bound to be so painful that whether or not the pain outweighs the benefits is always going to be a near thing — then the marriage will inevitably break down. What she can choose to do is to look at the way that she reacts to him, and think about whether she can re-frame in her mind, his actions, in such a way that she doesn’t need to be so hurt/reactive.

    Not only do people often not realize that they HAVE choices, especially in how they look at things, but that choices are not always, or perhaps even usually, binary. Martin may not have to choose between being a surgeon and living in PortWenn —perhaps there are options for doing surgery in Truro, e.g. Louisa doesn’t have to choose between being “happy” in Portwenn and miserable in London. She could live in London and keep a house in Cornwall, for holidays, vacations and maybe ultimately retirement.

    There’s another option for the marriage, too. They could have separate living arrangements, getting together on weekends, vacations, one or two nights a week — thinking of themselves as in a committed relationship, but deciding that living together puts too much of a burden on that relationship. I hope they don’t do that — although I have a friend who has been in that exact kind of relationship for 20+ years and it’s worked very well for her.

    Finally in these choice situations, I’ve always found it useful to remember that, if you get to a really hard choice, the weights on each option are usually more like 55-45 or even 51-49. That means that, in effect, it’s really hard to lose a lot overall. You hope that the gains outweigh the losses, but even if they don’t quite, you haven’t stepped into a black hole — just gone down another path, with an outcome almost as satisfactory.

  6. Post author

    I agree that there’s a hazard in looking at choices as binary, and the way Ruth Chang presents choices puts them in this category to a great extent. I imagine that she would have an explanation for using a binary model. I like your suggestions of how they could compromise and satisfy both of their needs. I also really like your clarification that the balance between choices may be pretty close to even. I think that’s what Ruth Chang has in mind when she says you have to commit to whatever choice you make to give it value. But you’re right to say that because neither choice is right, as she also asserts, neither choice will be like jumping off a cliff. You might even have an opportunity to reassess and decide, like she did, that the first path you took was a poor choice and you need to fix that.

    In a sense, Martin and Louisa have now done that by getting married. Their first decision to separate and end their relationship turned out to be the wrong choice. Louisa’s pregnancy made that apparent to her and she returned with the intention to rekindle their romance. Edith’s presence short-circuited all of that, but, in the end, they both realized they belong together. So they found a way to reverse their first decision, even if the going was rough — and still is. I have to think that they have mutually determined they want to be with each other and their commitment to marry means a lot to them.

    Your view that Martin gave up surgery rather than be treated for his hemophobia also makes us look at that as a hard choice he made, i.e. he chose being a GP over addressing the phobia. For the purposes of the show, he had to do that even though the phobia continues to be a problem no matter what sort of medical practice he has. When Ruth tries to make sense out of his choices, I think it could be the writers, et. al., realizing that they have to come up with some reason for why he made that choice. Their way of handling it was to draw on his family history and his psychological state of not feeling like he deserves to be happy. Not a bad choice on their parts!

    Now we have more to delve into psychologically with him especially, although Louisa isn’t off the hook either. I don’t see the show ending with this couple living apart because they so far have responded to the fans to a great extent, and that sort of end result would be quite unpopular. We wouldn’t want them to wrap things up with a bow and everyone ride off into the sunset, but we’d like to see them find a way to stay together.

    Thank you for the thoughtful remarks.

  7. Post author

    I just want to add that one reason to use a binary system is that with each decision we make, we reject the alternative. Thus, if Louisa decides to live in the house, she has rejected living elsewhere, at least for the time being. That is not to say that she can’t reconsider, but with each decision comes a rejection as well.

    Also, I am hoping that I have fixed the problem with the “reply” option. Please let me know if it continues to happen and I’ll try something else. I changed some of the settings and would like to think that will work.

  8. Linda D.

    Hello Karen!

    I don’t think the responses are slow on this topic for any other reason than the fact that these GREAT topics take a lot of thought. These are wonderful discussions but they are very deep and as for me, I find it takes me much longer to consider my answer and reply. This was one of the most interesting topics and I really enjoyed listening to Ruth Chang and reading the article!

  9. Post author

    Thanks again Linda. I just love thinking about all these ideas and I’m so glad you find them interesting too.

  10. Amy Cohen

    It’s hard to add more to this since we now know what choices they made in S7. But looking forward I see more hard choices as it does appear they will stay together.

    Will they continue therapy or try to go it on their own?

    Will they live in the surgery or will they find a home that has more room for each of them (and some place for James to play)?

    Will Louisa be more accepting of who Martin is or will she continue to hope he changes?

    Will Martin deal with his hemophobia or just accept it as part of his life? Along with that, will he accept being a GP or will he continue to hope to return to surgery?

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