Choices vs. Options

How do people respond when faced with violence? The default response in our society is usually submission: “Give the robber what he wants and he’ll go away.” Or, “cooperate with the rapist, and he won’t kill you.” If you talked with people who have been in that place, they might say something like “I didn’t have a choice – he had a gun” or “I had to give him my wallet or he’d have stabbed me.”

But did you have to?

I’d like to talk about the difference between choices and options. A choice is a decision we make to take a certain path. Options are the range of possible decisions we could make in a given situation. Suppose you’re facing a would-be mugger who points a gun at your face and says “give me your wallet or I’ll shoot you!” Do you really have no choice but to submit to his demand?

In fact, you do have a choice: You can submit, or not submit. And then he has a choice, too: He can shoot you, or not shoot you. You might be choosing from a difficult and unattractive set of options, but you do have a choice. And he has a choice.

What self-defense is all about, then, is increasing the range of available choices in a crisis situation. You’re adding options. For an untrained, unaware person who lives her life in Condition White, the choice she’s made is twofold: She’s chosen not to make an effort to spot trouble before it arrives, and she’s chosen not to have any options available to her besides submission when the bad guy does find her. When the mugger says “give me your purse or I’ll shoot you”, the only options she has to choose from are to hand over her purse, or to refuse and find out if the mugger really will shoot her.

The self-defense mindset gives us a different set of choices, though. For one thing, since we practice situational awareness (ie, spotting trouble before it arrives), we can get out of its way, If we’re trained in conflict skills (the subject of another post I’m working on), we might be able to de-escalate the situation. We might have a range of force options to escape trouble if we’re unsuccessful at avoiding it. Submission is always an option for us too, and there are unquestionably circumstances where at least temporary compliance is the right choice. But if we choose to comply with a bad guy, we’re doing it because we’ve made a tactical decision that it’s the right choice in that moment, not because it’s the only tool available to us.

My grandfather was a woodworker for most of his life, and his workshop was full of all sorts of tools. He had dozens of different saws and chisels, screwdrivers, even different kinds of hammers. I remember being enthralled as a child by the variety of tools that he had, neatly arrayed, on the pegboards that lined the walls of his workshop. “Why do you need so many saws, Grandpa?” I used to ask him. “Why did you spend all that money on the funny-shaped Japanese saw, when it looks just like those other ones there?”

He’d smile at me when I asked those questions, and then he’d take out the new saw or chisel and show me what it did, and exactly how it was better – in one particular application, perhaps – than the other tools. And then he’d say, “if you have more tools in your toolbox, you know you have exactly the right one for the job. Using almost the right tool might get you through, but using exactly the right tool – if you know how to use it correctly – will make the job easier and the end result tidier.”

That’s how I see my self-defense training, my shooting skills (and decision to arm myself), my situational awareness practice. The more tools I have in my tool belt – and know how to use effectively – the better off I’m likely to be in a crisis. It might be true that submitting to the criminal’s demand would work out okay for me a goodly portion of the time. But if I choose to comply, I don’t want it to be simply because I have no more effective response available to me.

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