Posted by: Robin | October 20, 2008

Jane, Chaos and the Nature of Choice

Since my early twenties I have been fascinated by the nature of choice and its relationship to how our choices shape our lives. It began when I listened to a theological lecture on Calvin’s Doctrine of Predestination. It was compelling reasoning and lucid, but theology aside, the statement that stood out was “Choice is impossible without inclination.” Every choice we make requires inclination. It puts the lie to one of our fallback comments, “I had no choice.”

When I argued this with a learned friend, he helped me see that even when I choose something I think I don’t want to choose or choose wrongly, it is because the alternative is less desirable. There is something I want that it might give me, i.e, I want to be liked; I am providing for my family; I hate conflict; I couldn’t live with with myself otherwise; or, the momentary reward is worth more to me than the possible consequences, to name a few. I watched two films in the last week that were fascinating studies of the choices we make, why we make them and the long term ways they make us who we are. One was the Jane Austen PBS bio film “Miss Austen Regrets,” and the other was the film “Chaos Theory,” starring Ryan Reynolds. [SPOILERS AHEAD]

“Miss Austen Regrets” begins with an incident in Jane Austen’s life in her twenties. A wealthy man asks her to marry him, she accepts, and the next morning she is seen leaving the house at daybreak. The only certain thing descendents, biographers and scholars know for sure is that she changed her mind and refused him. The chronology jumps to Jane, aged 40, and in the midst of publishing Emma and working on Persuasion. Through the devices of her niece’s courtship, an encounter with a former suitor, a flirtation with a new one and her mother’s bitterness about the financial insecurity Jane’s long-ago rejection of that rich man caused, the film explores the complex consequences of Jane’s choice not to wed. I think I would have to watch the film three or four more times to fully appreciate it, as Jane confronts her choices and regrets in the final two years of her life. She does not have the comfort and protection of a husband. She does not have any financial security other than what her financially strapped brothers and her pen can provide. In so many obvious and subtle ways she feels the absence of these things acutely; and yet, the alternative: trading meaningful companionship for security, submerging all her energies into a husband and family and their daily cares instead of her writing, and maybe most important of all, the sacrifices of her autonomy to be herself and a life shared with her sister Cassandra.

I never quite understand when people say they do not have regrets. How can we not regret that we have hurt people and made careless decisions? Or if most of us are honest, that we do not feel occasionally an aching for the road not taken? Sometimes that aching is a painful grief and unfulfilled need. Few of us can have it all or even come close. Sometimes our greatest needs are diametrically opposed, and we must ask ourselves which do we need more. Maybe down the road we get a second chance at what we left behind, and with the benefit of years and hindsight, we must choose again. In one of the final scenes, as Jane is ill unto death, and talking with her sister, she realizes that she chose freedom on that long ago day, and though it has left her lonely in certain ways and made her life precarious often, she chose what she needed. Given the chance she would choose it again and again, whatever the cost. It was a choice that gave her more in love and meaningful work than it ever took.

“Chaos Theory” was an unexpected gem of a movie about a clock being turned back by ten minutes and how it explodes a man’s life as he knows it. The resulting consequences offer him a choice that teaches him that the only thing we can control in this life of uncertainty and messy human frailty is the choice to love and forgive and to be loved and forgiven in return. Life in so many ways can be random, and circumstances outside our control can wreak havoc and set off dizzying chains of events, but are we victims? “Chaos Theory” is largely a sweet, funny movie of our human foibles and how any given minute can throw us into the unexpected, and our lives can go to hell in a hand-basket. Emily Mortimer gives a lovely performance, but it is Ryan Reynolds who holds it together in a rare and understated performance, even in those moments that require his trademark broad comedic skills. The scene when his character must face whether he will take the harder road of loving and being loved, or walk away, could so easily have been sentimental, even trite, but Reynolds stillness as his heart’s struggle and realization ripple across his face make it deeply moving. Then the film moves on with a light deft touch.

Choice. We make them every moment of our lives, and they often take us to places we never intended to be, but they are ours. Only ours. But all too often we never stop to ask what are really choosing–freedom, pleasure, a relief of guilt, trying to fill our own needs, pain, love, truth, faith, beauty–underneath the choice. Does it matter?



  1. Writing the blog may be a step toward the unstuck

  2. Another great question. I think it does matter when we recognize a pattern of choices in our lives that we are discouraging. To recognized the greater “good” we think we are serving by making certain choices.

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