“I guess we both need to remember that whatever’s happening in our heads, whatever it was that created us, we get to choose. That’s what makes us people, Syl.”
– Kaladin Stormblessed, Rhythm of War
The Stormlight Archive, by Brandon Sanderson
In the precise context of the story, Kaladin and Syl are characters who are both wrestling with their inner demons, with who they are, who they’ve been, who they might become, and especially the loss and sorrow they have known. They are both touched by higher powers, with Syl herself being apparently made from some fragment of that higher power. They have been driven by purpose, by what they were supposed to do, but now they are learning the difference between being directed and being confined by such purpose. Most of all, they are learning the power they wield with their choices, by the simple act of retaining the power to choose for themselves, instead of losing their own will to that of another.
That power of choice is a key element to what makes a person a person, what makes people… people… instead of, say, robots, animals, or piles of mindless rocks that can somehow walk around.
There are, of course, circumstances in which our options may be so limited that one can be excused for believing that there is no choice at all. Soldiers are expected to obey every order, be it demeaning, distasteful, or outright evil. The desperation to survive can drive many to become thieves or even commit murder. The drive to maintain or increase one’s wealth and status, let alone to protect one’s loved ones, has compelled many a man and woman to do things which are generally not brought up in polite conversation. And, of course, the expectations which are automatically set by one’s upbringing and culture will naturally narrow one’s field of view to see only the options which such present to us.
All of these, however, do not change the fact that a choice is still a choice.
Some soldiers are regarded as heroes for disobeying unjust orders. The desperation to survive has been overcome by remarkably selfless people who chose instead to die for the sake of others. Some of the greatest men and women in history have been those who chose to maintain their integrity and honor even at great personal cost to their wealth, status, and families. And if our very destinies can be shaped by our choices, then how we are raised need not define our options.
Our destinies are our own to make by our own choices. That is the privilege of a person.
Now, I want to emphasize that I do not mean to judge those who make the other choice, to obey, do bad things, etc. when they are driven to it by forces beyond their control. Many, many people throughout history have made the wrong choice, often because they simply did not see or know any other way. We tend to judge such people harshly, especially if that person we are judging is ourselves. But the accountability that comes with our ability to choose is not the same thing as being totally responsible for what we do when someone holds a knife to our throat, so to speak. This is not to say we are totally guiltless, but neither are we entirely to blame.
Where we are responsible is simply in what we do and why we do it.
That is what makes a person who and what they really are.