Today, I still have that hopeful 13-year-old inside of me, but I am also a complex product of all of the experiences life has thrown my way.
Destiny, Choice Not Chance. Four simple, yet powerful words.
Thus began the speech that I wrote and performed for the Optimist Oratorical Competition as an eighth-grade forensics student at Orchard Lake Middle School. I must have rehearsed that thing hundreds of times over a four-month period. My poor family! To this day, if I say “destiny, choice not chance” to my brother, he experiences flashbacks and heart palpitations. It’s a problem.
Yet my hard work paid off; I was one of three students in my class to be plucked from obscurity to participate that spring in the Big Show — the Optimist Club Meeting at the Stage Deli in West Bloomfield. But more important than my five minutes of fame were the lessons that were ingrained into me about the power we have over our lives.
“To begin with,” I said, “destiny is something that is meant to happen. It’s preordained, predetermined, inevitable. Pretty fatalistic, I must say. If I follow that line of reasoning and assume my life is mapped out for me, no matter what I do, then why have dreams? Why have desires? Why work hard to achieve a goal?
“There are two types of people in the world,” I went on to say, “spectators and participants. The spectators watch. They sit on the sidelines. They may scream and cheer and carry-on, but their behavior has no impact on the outcome of the game.
“It’s the players, the participants, who actually do have a say in the outcome of the game. Therefore, I choose to be a participant in the game of life. I choose to choose my destiny.”
I look back at the teen who wrote these words and have to smile at her naivete. As children, we can be blind believers in optimism because we think life is black and white. We are either happy or sad, good or bad, successes or failures. As adults, we come to understand that life is much more nuanced than that. We are the products of our vast experiences, of the choices we’ve made and how we react to what life throws at us.
Life is actually much like those Choose Your Own Adventure books that were popular when I was a kid. No matter how hard we try to take control by “choosing our destiny,” choice always comes with consequences — the promise of success coupled with the risk of failure.
Yet, there is something both courageous and empowering about making our own choices rather than letting fate alone have its say. Even when life doesn’t feel fair, it’s how we respond — through a lens of positivity or negativity — that shapes us as humans. That’s the true choice.
As American author and lecturer Brené Brown puts it in her book Rising Strong, “We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time. Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.”
Those words are truer than ever today, especially at a time, when it often feels like life is just “happening” to us. How do we stay positive in the face of the recent incidents of antisemitism and violence against the Jewish people, or the epidemic of gun violence in this country like the mass shooting in our own backyard at MSU last week that left us reeling with helplessness and anger? Do we just sit back and observe these events, or do we choose to take action?
Choice can indeed be overwhelming in the face of such tremendous obstacles, but it doesn’t have to be large and sweeping in its scope. Where one person might paint signs and march through the street, another might call her congressperson or buy a cup of coffee for a stranger who is having a tough day. The smallest of actions matter, and before you know it, you’ve started a movement; our small choices can change the world.
Today, I still have that hopeful 13-year-old inside of me, but I am also a complex product of all of the experiences life has thrown my way. It would have been easy and perhaps even understandable for me to turn into a cynic, but that’s not who I am. I choose positivity rather than blind optimism. I choose to be relentlessly kind. I choose choice.
Shockingly, I didn’t win the West Bloomfield Optimist Oratorical Contest that year. I came in third place (I know you were on the edge of your seat). But I did glean important lessons about the way I wanted to — and have — lived my life. I choose to be in action, even in the face of the fear and uncertainty we live with every day. And when you are feeling helpless and afraid to act, I encourage you, too, to walk the truth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Marni Raitt is executive director of the Detroit Jewish News Foundation.