I’ve recently read two novels- coincidentally, both by Irish writers- which have explored how we make significant personal choices in our lives.  In both Love And Summer by William Trevor and Brooklyn by Colm Toibín, the main character finds herself at a crossroads, forced to decide between radically different courses of action. All options involve conflicts of love, relationship, personal happiness, and moral values.  Each possibility offers something good and valuable, and at the same time entails some element of loss and sacrifice.  For Ellie in Love And Summer, the choice is between a passionate romance and a quiet respectful affection.  For Eilis in Brooklyn, the choice is between the comfort of familiarity and the loneliness of a new life faraway.

Most people at some point in our lives face choices which really are either/or, where we can’t have both options, and where, whatever we do, there are painful feelings involved.  We just can’t wriggle out of having to make a decision and bear the consequences.  The existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre commented that the only choice we don’t have is not to make any choice; even when we attempt to abdicate responsibility and hand ourselves over to others to decide, this in itself constitutes a choice.  For the most part, though, we feel better about ourselves if we do take responsibility and face up to our dilemmas.

So what guides us in making choices?  It is too simplistic to say ‘do whatever makes you happy’. The truth about such dilemmas is that each option involves both happiness and unhappiness.  If we choose what gives us the most immediate pleasure, we might transgress other values which are important to us.  Feeling that we have fallen short of our own values will leave us discontented and ill at ease.  But if we choose what other people, our culture or religion, tell us is the right thing to do, we might find ourselves resentful and frustrated, feeling that we are not living our own life.  

Clarifying our feelings and our values, listening to both heart and head, finding our way towards the choice which feels most right and most truthful for us, and taking ownership of our choices- all of that takes time and patience, and can be assisted by the presence of a careful listener who can help us sort through our feelings and thoughts until we find our answers.  Existential psychotherapy encourages us to face up to the difficult choices in life and seek to live in accordance with our values as well as our feelings.