It Was Meant To Be
People often repeat proverbs as explanations as to why certain events have occurred in their lives. One saying I commonly hear is: "it was meant to be." People use this expression to account for both positive and negative events in their lives. For example, "It was meant to be that I met the man of my dreams" or "the promotion at work that I did not get was not meant to be."
This saying implies that what has happened in a person's life occurred because of an external omnipotent force. These expression are stated in past tense, and is never said prior to an event as a premonition.
It Happened For A Reason
The proverb implies a sense of destiny -- the belief one's actions are predetermined and must have happened for a reason. In fact, some people actually say "it must have happened for a reason" rather than "it was meant to be" -- but both expressions have similar connotations.
In a predetermined world, one is no longer responsible for his or her decisions. One might think she is making a choice, but in actuality she is doing what is dictated by destiny. To use an an analogy, in a world where destiny rules, one's experience of having free will is like the child's experience of being the captain of the ship on a carnival ride where the toy steering wheel has no real control of the boat that in reality travels on a fixed circular track. In other words, free will and choice are illusory.
The Abandon Of Free Will
Why would someone want to accept a worldview that undermines their right to self determination? Isn't personal freedom what we all strive for? From an early age are we not taught the goal of life is to achieve as much freedom as possible, be it financially, socially, at work or in one's relationships? Why would a person want their freedom taken away or diminished by some sort of authoritarian force or being? Is it possible that personal freedom is not all that it is cracked up to be?
The Anxiety Of Choice
Some people have a hard time making decisions. Decisions are not always easy, be it what college to go to, who to marry, where to live, how to invest, should I have kids, take this job, divorce or retire? While you often hear personal freedom is a wonderful privilege, when faced with actual choices, individuals often become psychologically paralyzed. Fear of making the wrong decision can lead to overwhelming anxiety and despair. Once the choice has been made, many individuals often doubt their decision and experience the dread associated with regret. This regret sometimes manifests itself in an obsessive like rumination: "should have" -- "could have" --"what if." Other times, it is defended against by denying the the personal responsibility for the decision. It was not my fault, or I could not have choose otherwise because it was beyond by control -- "it was meant to be."
Paradoxically, to some individuals freedom can be experience as a limitation. To choose "A" means you did not choose "B". Decisions can be perceived as an act of eliminating options. Contrary to the popular saying, for these individuals, every time a door opens another door is closed. A closed door symbolizes one's finitude. Alexander Graham Bell said it so nicely: "When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us."
Should Have Could Have
Personal freedom can cause anxiety on many different levels. First, there is the fear of making the wrong decision. This anxiety manifests in obsessive thoughts, thinking over and over again about the pros and cons of each decision. Ironically, while it may feel like not choosing keeps open possibilities, in reality no decision is itself a choice, one that is nonproductive or forward-moving. Second, there is the anxiety associated with regret. This anxiety manifests in ruminative thoughts, the "should have" -- "could have."
Coping Mechanisms and Regret
Both types of anxiety are very painful and can result in despair. Many individuals develop coping mechanisms to avoid these intense negative feelings. For example, some might develop compulsions. -- repetitive rituals as a means of trying to gain a sense of control over fear of the unknown. Others might avoid the decision altogether -- perhaps alcohol or drug abuse as a means of not dealing with the question at hand. Several might deny there is even a choice -- if life is ruled by destiny -- "it was meant to be " you are not responsible for decisions, thus cannot have regrets.
From experience we all know that these coping mechanisms -- be it obsessions, compulsions, avoidance or denial -- have limited abilities to defend against these fears and anxieties associated with the responsibility and pressure of self determination.
Claustrophobia, Panic Attacks And The Fear of Death
There is one more level of anxiety worth mentioning that is intertwined with both the fear to decide and the regret of past decisions. This anxiety is much deeper and more cumbersome than the anxieties discussed above. For the fear of limitation when pushed to its root origin brings one to the fear of one's finitude. Perhaps the claustrophobia or panic associated with a closed door is intrinsically the fear of one's mortality. The existential psychologist refer to this ultimate cause of angst as "death anxiety." But the fairy tale of "happily ever after" is perhaps a topic for another blog.
Copyright November 2016, Martin Klein, Ph.D.
Dr. Martin Klein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who practices in Westport and Branford CT. He works with children, adults and couples.