I believe that we are products of our environment to a vast degree, but have the power of choice to counter-balance this fate. Our intelligence gives us the ability to adapt to whatever we are exposed to; and unlike the animals of the earth, we have the power of reason to make moral choices based on thought given to possible future outcome. Sometimes we do not always reason things out well and must live with the physical or emotional outcome of a bad decision. However, we choose our path in life, even though we often would like to believe that we are victims of circumstance.
“Kramer vs. Kramer” touched me because I spent the week prior to watching this movie in divorce court myself, ending a marriage of thirty years after three years of struggle and separation. Though our three children are adults, this heart-wrenching real life drama was still an ordeal that affected them, too, and I felt the emotion of the movie very deeply. Like Ted, my husband was caught up in his own life, ignoring me for the most part. He was verbally abusive, which was acknowledged by a judge in a previous court situation, and eventually, like Joanna, I also left. Unlike Joanna, I did not intend for this to be a permanent arrangement at the time, but my husband replaced me with a girlfriend and my options became limited.
When Ted and Joanna meet as she moves back into town to claim their child was particularly poignant to me. They are arguing and he shouts at her “Don’t tell me what I can or can’t do. Don’t tell me what to do!” reminded me of a similar conversation in which my husband ended with, “I don’t like ultimatums!” He was referring to the fact that I had moved out for a short time after an argument and apparently felt I was pushing him for a decision of some sort. I was. For once, I expected him to take responsibility, in part, for our discord.
Ted and Joanna ultimately work out a reasonable compromise, with the mutual goal of what was best for their son. The key word here is ‘reasonable’. In the first part of the film, Ted is unreasonably self-centered with his job. Midway, Joanna becomes unreasonable with her demands for custody of their son. They both learn, after analyzing the outcome of their decisions, that being selfish hurts everyone; and they choose to put their son’s needs first, allowing them both emotional peace of mind.
“Everyday Use” by AliceWalker is another story that reflects the idea of decisions, environment and selfishness. In this story the oldest daughter is a selfish person, who uses the connection to her family for material things, and totally disregards the sentimentality and bond that her mother and sister feel.
The climax of this story is when the mother makes the decision to keep the quilts for the younger daughter, Maggie, instead of letting the older daughter scoop them up and selfishly take them, knowing that they had been saved for Maggie’s hope chest.
The title “Everyday Use” is an echo of the older daughter’s disdain for her family’s lifestyle. Dee has made a decision to better herself, but has lost sight of her true heritage for a glorified concept that she has fabricated. She chooses to be selfish and elite, regaling her mother and sister for their simple ways; but she is actually the one who is culturally challenged. She has convinced her mother that she has ‘made it’, and her approval is desirable.
In “Everyday Use” the mother says, “You’ve no doubt seen those TV shows where the child who has ‘made it’ is confronted, as a surprise, by her own mother and father,….a pleasant surprise, of course:….Sometimes I dream a dream in which Dee and I are suddenly brought together on a TV program of this sort……In real life I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands…….But of course all this does not show on television. I am the way my daughter would want me to be.”
This shows the emotional impact that Dee has had on her mother, making the mother feel unacceptable in her daughter’s eyes. The daughter’s selfish disregard for her mother’s feelings, time and time again, have taken their toll on the relationship.
When Dee leaves at the end of the story, in a huff without the quilts, she has not learned the value of her family ties, but the mother and younger daughter have been brought closer together by their rejection of the older daughter’s superfluous attitude. Here again, choices are made based on what each person needs and what they can live with morally.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is another example of choices and the ability to envision future outcome. The character of McMurphy is a prime example of how we, as humans, adapt to our environment and how our choices affect our quality of life. Jack Nicholson, who plays McMurphy in the movie version, does an excellent job of portraying a man who learns to play the game of life and interact with those in authority to survive. He makes choices, sometimes based on survival, and sometimes based on what he needs to achieve emotional fulfillment in the form of a victory over authority. Again, it’s a matter of reason, and what he is willing and able to morally live with after the decision.
Though thwarted by the head nurse, Nurse Ratchet, who continually works at molding them into products of the environment she has created for them, each inmate has the choice to be inspired by McMurphy and achieve fulfillment in various ways that are individually meaningful. McMurphy offers an example of self-confidence that teaches them how to improve their quality of life with self-esteem, but the choices ultimately belong to the inmates.
The scene where McMurphy asks Nurse Ratchet if they can watch the World Series, and she puts it up for a vote, shows her dictatorship over the inmates. They sense she disapproves and are intimidated in their desire to side with McMurphy at first. They are products of the controlled environment she has created; but McMurphy’s self-confidence disrupts that environment, introducing an element of opposition that was previously nonexistent.
The choice the inmates make to ultimately side with McMurphy in a vote for watching the World Series show the ability for reason in the human species, and weighing what positive or negative effect decisions have on the future, including any side effects that may occur. They had to be reminded that they could make decisions for themselves.
Lord of the Flies is definitely a story about choices and being products of our environment. The protagonist, Ralph, is faced with choices as a leader when he and his peers, a group of young military school boys, are isolated on a deserted island after a plane crash. Their environment is harsh and unlike anything they have experienced, so they must adapt for survival.
The protagonist, Jack, engages in a power struggle with Ralph for leadership; and the entire tale is a tug-of-war reflecting good and evil, with the other boys being forced to choose a side.
The plot reaches a crescendo with the murder of Piggy, who is the only boy left to choose the side of good with Ralph, leaving Ralph alone to face the existing environment of uncontrolled blood-lust that the others have created. Up to this point he and Piggy have the option to join them, but their human reason keeps them from doing so, knowing it is destructive. Ralph’s moral obligation toward good overrules his need for survival until it is too late to reverse events. It is only with the arrival of outside assistance that Ralph is rescued. This is what we label as ‘luck’ when we are saved from disaster in spite of our choices, but to depend on fate always stepping in to save us from ourselves would be folly.
“The Color Purple” deals with environment and choices in a dramatic way. The heroine, Celie, triumphs against all odds and carves out a life for herself as a dressmaker with self-esteem, in contrast to her beginnings as a daughter, wife and step-mother who is abused in the worst of ways on a regular basis and treated like a servant..
Celie, inspired by a co-character, Shug Avery, realizes that she has the power to make choices that will affect her life in a positive, or negative, manner. She does not have to be a victim of circumstance, but it takes her a long time to come to these conclusions. Her environment is a difficult one to overcome and has taught her the contrary — that she is undeserving and should be treated badly by others as her lot in life.
To follow Celie’s story and watch her blossom into a complete human being with the ability to reason things out and make choices for her own future is a delight. It empowers the reader by showing that human reason can overcome the odds and set one’s future course on a different path.
In “The Color Purple” by AliceWalker, Celie finally confronts the antagonist, her husband, whom she just calls ‘Mr.’
‘Mr.’ has accused her of several things meant to demoralize her and keep control of her emotionally; but she makes a stand against him and turns everything back on him. In the last sentence she says, “I’m poor, I’m black, I may be ugly and I can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here.” This last statement is her realization that she has the fortitude to survive by choice and overcome her environment.
“Amen, say Shug. Amen, amen,” is validation that it’s about time that Celie stops being a victim and takes control of her life.
We have the power to improve our lives and use the talents and intelligence that we’ve been given, to be the best we can be, but it is our choice to utilize these gifts to their full capacity. The richest, most beautiful or handsome person, by modern standards and with superior intelligence, can make all the wrong choices and live a miserable existence in spite of what they have to work with in life.
By the same token, there are many self-made millionaires who came from humble beginnings because they made the right choices; or people considered beautiful or handsome because they have an aura of goodness that shines from within instead of possessing the physical features touted by current standards as attractive.
There are people who patent inventions and are successful, possibly not because they have superior intelligence, but because they persevered until they accomplished their goal.
I feel empowered when I read a story or view a movie with a character I can identify with who must overcome incredible, or not-so-incredible, odds and succeed. I don’t think I am alone in this feeling. I think we are greatly influence by the written word and visual arts. (On another subject for another time, I think it is a great disservice to the public when filmmakers bombard us with violence and unrealistic role models.)
I grew up being Daddy’s little girl, a model for mom’s seamstress skills, a sister, a niece, somebody’s wife, three somebody’s’ mother, and an employee. After almost fifty years, I am learning to be me. I am an artist, an aspiring writer, a homeowner and an intelligent, basically well-adjusted person.
Like Celie, I can conquer my environment by reason and choices, and I will succeed in taking care of myself in life. I have the map to my future, and I’m learning to use my internal compass to choose the best paths. Life is a journey to be enjoyed, and how we make it to the end is up to us.