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The Choices We Make

Rich Egger
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad

I've been thinking a lot about choices lately.  My autonomic nervous system makes decisions each and every minute to keep me alive that I am only remotely aware of. 

I don’t have to consciously remind myself to breathe, digest my food, or dilate my pupils in order to see in the dark.   As a homo sapien sapien my highly developed nervous system does this automatically, thus freeing me up to consciously consider the countless number of other choices presented to me on a daily basis. 

According to the infinite wisdom of the internet, the average adult makes about 35,000 remotely conscious decisions each and every day.  While this number seems absurdly high, consider the 2007 study by Cornell University researchers Wansink and Sobal, which shows we make over 200 decisions every day just about food.  

The choices we make have ramifications for those we know and don’t know.  I try to make decisions that don’t harm others.  As with so many things in life, as your level of responsibility increases, so too do the number of choices you are faced with.  The decisions that leaders make – whether they are our elected officials, bosses, or family members we love and admire – can create ripple effects for generations to come, influencing the well-being of families, communities, states, nations, and even the world-at-large. 

A number of choices made by those around me lately have made have left me angry.  As a woman, men often discount me when they fail to communicate openly and honestly about decisions they are making that will influence my life.  Failing to include viewpoints other than their own is not only disrespectful and arrogant, but what anthropologists call ethnocentric. 

Ethnocentrism takes many forms, but largely comes down to the opinion that your values and beliefs are the only ones that are right.  The opposite of ethnocentrism is cultural relativism, which states that other values and beliefs are not wrong, just different based on the reality of that individual and their culture.  And how to we begin to understand why people make the choices they make?  We engage them.  Sometimes this takes the form of a conversation and sometimes it goes much deeper than that. 

In less than a week, seven students from Western Illinois University and two of their professors – Dr. Sarah Haynes and I – will be on our way to a country that for most of us is so wildly different than the one we are a part of.  For two weeks we will immerse ourselves in the sights, sounds, tastes, and hot and humid climate of what is present day India. 

The choice that these students have made to travel to a place that is difficult and wonderful and full of contradictions speaks to the caliber of students at Western.  As a university, WIU is committed to promoting critical thinking, engaged learning and research, and different ways of knowing the world. 

These students truly embody the core values of WIU in that they are taking advantage of every opportunity they have to make the most of their educational experience.  I can guarantee that each and every one of them will come home a changed person.  They will be better humans because of their experience.  The expanded perspective they will have about how the world works will allow them to tackle challenges at home and in the workplace differently.  They will be better and more mindful leaders as a result of their experiences.  And most importantly they will understand that when it comes to facing the challenges that of our time, whether it is climate change or racism or poverty, these are shared challenges that no one person can solve alone.  The only way forward is together.   The choices they make in the future will be more mindful of others because they took the time to step outside of their comfort zones. 

So, before you make that next conscious decision take a moment to reflect on the words of chef Alice Waters who said “The decisions you make are a choice of values that reflect your life in every way.”

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University. 

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.