Have you noticed how politicians love to woo us with the promise of choice? They tell us how choices are good for us - how they free us from the suffocating, leaden, hand of state control. “Give us power”, they declare “and we’ll lead you to the promised land of choice-for-all. We’ll open the door to an Aladdin’s Cave of options that will enrich your lives and bring you happiness - the stuff of dreams!”
Well I suppose it’s often true. Choice can be healthy. The ability to decide for ourselves can be liberating - even life-enhancing. But always? I wonder.
Imagine a spoilt little boy, given free run of the sweet shop. When he emerges, reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s Augustus Gloop, his cheeks and pockets bulging with toffees, fudge, chocolate bars and gob-stoppers, how does he feel? Has his character been strengthened, his moral fibre, his spirit, his self-esteem, been reinforced? Is he fulfilled? Well, his tummy might be, but I would suggest, that along with rotting molars, the consequence of the sweet shop owner’s largesse might be a dull, unforgiving sense of guilt, worthlessness and all-round malaise.
Let’s look at the story of another young man. This chap is no fantastical creation of a children’s author. No. Freddie is real. His story began when he was a little older and much wiser than the chocaholic little boy. In his early twenties, Freddie was in a bad way. He lacked direction, unsure as to which path he should be taking. But the biggest cause of his low mood was simple - he had no choice.
Freddie is French and in France, until the mid-1990s, one year of military service, for young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty five, was a legal obligation. A must. In As You Like It, Shakespeare described “the whining schoolboy, with his satchel and shining-morning face, creeping like a snail unwillingly to school”. Surely, as he penned these words, the bard had Freddie in mind. For this is how it was for the young man on his first day of military service. He was dreading the experience - twelve months of unfettered boredom and physical hardship. Twelve months of of hard beds, bad food and being berated by big, bad, parade ground bullies. Could life get much worse?
But Freddie was made of the right stuff. Was it his natural sense of curiosity, an inbuilt strand of optimism? Who knows? But, within days of arriving at camp, his eyes opened. He looked. He listened. And he was struck by a new truth. Suddenly, everywhere he looked, he spied options - loads of them. They became clearer by the day. On the one hand, he saw whey-faced, round-shouldered sous-officiers like him, nearing the end of their terms of service. They’d chosen the path of least resistance. From their demeanour, twelve months had taken a hundred and twenty months to complete. These young men were worn down and worn out.
Then Freddie observed the young officers - those who also were close to completing their service, but who had fronted up to the challenges before them, who had chosen to get stuck into military life, giving it their all. And what a difference.
These young men carried a spring in their step. They were straight-backed, and their mouths were set firm. They enjoyed a sound night’s sleep in comfortable quarters. They dined well in the officers’ mess. And most appealing, they earned a higher income than their lacklustre fellows. They looked almost happy with life. And Freddie realised that, after all, he did have a choice. In fact, the more he explored the prospect of the twelve months laid before him, the more he realised that he was faced with plenty of choices.
So Freddie made, the most important and valuable choice of his young life. Not a natural soldier, he chose to embrace military service - to turn his unavoidable situation into a massive positive. He chose to turn every negative into a challenge and every challenge into an opportunity.
Freddie had a go at everything. He learned every new skill that was offered to him - not just basic soldiering skills, but also how to drive trucks, how to communicate using morse code and how to show leadership.
This resolute approach led to remarkable achievements - second place in the assault course, completing a sixty mile race, reaching the finals of the orienteering competition, being one of only two young men to earn a medal for outstanding contribution.
Most rewarding of all, these achievements, in turn, led to recognition. Within three months, Freddie was promoted to the rank of Corporal. Within five months, he was Chief Corporal. After just six months, he was promoted to Sergeant. He now slept in comfortable quarters with his fellow officers and he dined with them too, in the relative luxury of the Officers’ Mess. He also earned more pay. But he earned something less tangible, yet far more valuable. His remarkable efforts also earned him the respect of his fellow conscripts and his senior officers - even the respect of the bullying sergeant major on the parade ground.
Freddie’s brief, intense experience of military life taught him so much. He learned lessons that continue to support him today during his successful working life. Thanks to the experience, he now appreciates that achievement starts with attitude, that, although success needn’t be complicated, it is hard. He understands the value of diversity and of considering the consequences of your actions, short and long-term. Freddie realises that when success comes his way, he must briefly, reflect, smile and then… move on.
Above all, experience of military service has taught Freddie one of the secrets of long-term happiness. He now knows the profound pleasure that comes through achieving a task that is, perhaps even in a small way, difficult. This could be completing a marathon, finishing an essay, writing a complicated report, or even something as simple as weeding a garden path. Whatever the job in hand, overcome the challenge, do your best and happiness will be your reward.