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Decisions, from "Sophie's Choice", a movie starring Meryl Streep

Subthemes: External Pressure, Under the Gun, Values and Counterfactuals, Partial Information

In a harrowing scene from the movie “Sophie’s Choice,” a Nazi officer at a concentration camp demands that a holocaust prisoner, played by Meryl Streep, decide which of the two young children at her side will live and which will be snatched away. The scene is excruciating. Everyone, especially parents, cringes – no, they cry inside at the pathological cruelty of this monstrous decision forced on a mother.

Here is the scene in “Sophie’s Choice”, directed by Alan J. Pakula and starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline.

External Pressure: Sometimes other people pressure us to pick a direction. The Nazi officer implacably forced Streep to make a life and death decision. As she shuffled forward among the crowd of Jewish prisoners, without sexual surrender to him she had no way to escape or buy time. If police interrogators demand that you sign a statement or an employer tells you to recant a claim lest you lose your job, if a politician must cast a vote on controversial legislation or your pregnancy nears the Roe v. Wade cutoff, then external forces pressure your decision.

Sometimes, a father takes you in line and says “Better go home, son, and make up your mind”. Or you have three days to retract the offer; someone in a meeting blurts out an offensive comment and all eyes turn to you as the senior executive; your sub-lease is coming up for renewal. It wasn’t what you wanted, but third parties forced your hand.

At other times, when you face a decision, you may be less aware of external pressure, such as when group think warps your reasoning with subliminal force or your religion pushes you against your desires or your Capulet tribe prohibits Montague love.

Under the Gun: Much advice spelled out in shelves of books educates us about how to make better decisions. Tools and methodologies aplenty can guide us when we have time, facts and freedom to act or not to act. However, the agony of the movie scene is worsened by the suddenness of the decision forced on Streep. The sociopath officer gives her seconds to pick which child will die, yet she suffered the trauma the rest of her life. Do you jump into the water to rescue the struggling swimmer; do you race into the burning house to save someone; do you stand up and declare “I am Spartacus!”? Risk and heroism, or a lifetime of guilt, can descend upon any of us at any time and we don’t enjoy the luxury of thoughtful rumination before we act. Transformative decisions give people only a split second to flee the attacker, pull the trigger, race back to the burning vehicle, or give up a child.

Values and Incommensurables: Streep might have bargained to sleep with the officer if that would have saved her children. She would probably have given her own life to avoid the deaths of her children.

If those options had been available to her, one deep value would have yielded to a deeper value in making the decision. Rape for a child; death for a child. The soul-wrenching decisions in life sear because our cherished values clash: do I march toward the police batons and dogs on the Edmund Pettus Bridge; do I cross the line in the sand to die in the Alamo; do I wedge into the cockpit of the kamikaze plane and take off; do I kneel at the anthem of a football game; do I endure torture rather than name my compatriots? The hardest decisions pit our life against a stronger belief, or our convictions against loss of income, family, respect from society, the law. Do I step onto the diamond as the first Black player in the Major Leagues; do I testify against the President in an impeachment process; do I go to jail rather than go to fight in Vietnam?

To follow one path confronts Frost’s hiker with no value conflicts. Much to our distress, influential decisions assail us with incommensurables. How do we balance this morale foundation against another or this yearned-for desirable against that one? This house has a prestigious address, that one we can afford; this person we love, that one practices our religion; this job brings stress and renown, that plodding one will support us for years. These are “lumpy” choices, not a smooth spectrum of gradations to ponder, and often pit one defining personal value against another: we want financial security but we also want a house that makes us proud.

Partial Information: We make life-altering decisions such as whether to attend college, or which major to pursue, or whether to accept a job offer without knowing as much as we would like to know. These tough calls are far from playing cards, where the rules are clear and mostly luck determines the winner. Meryl Streep could not have known for sure whether she would be reunited with the child she surrendered (viewers assume the girl was doomed to the gas chamber). We are rarely in a position to evaluate full information or a range of well-understood options. Most commonly, the limitation arises from not knowing information that might be knowable. Is the to-be boss a good person? Will the team I might sign with going to invest in other good players? Will my coding skills hold up in the pressure-cooker company? But beyond this category of missing facts are the “unknown unknowns” that life serves up after major decisions – “If I had only known….” Meryl Streep would not have thought a moment, for example, about whether the war would end and the death camp be liberated the next day.

 

Although the movie title is “Sophie’s Choice,” the horror branded into this scene should not be considered a “choice” by the young mother. Choice implies picking among favorable possibilities, such as “I’ll have chocolate ice cream,” which is far from the profoundly negative consequences forced so rapidly by the SS officer on the mother. She had neither sufficient time, leverage, or knowledge to consider how to respond and she had to wrestle with her most profound values: her body, her life, her children.

To consider subthemes of Decisions that are not closely associated with this movie scene or the other three genre of art, please visit Additional Subthemes. Read this for more about Themes from Art.

We invite you to read about other movies discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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