In the study skills classes I used to teach, early on I gave my students an exercise.

Think of every reason you have ever missed school or class. Illness, vacation, laziness, empty gas tank, work schedule, etc. Make a list down one side of the piece of paper. Then, classify those reasons as falling into one of two categories – “my fault” or “not my fault.”

We, then, took all those reasons and put them on the board as one giant list, which we as a group categorized by the “my fault/not my fault” nomenclature. An interesting thing began to happen as we talked. The students start calling each other out on what they claim to be “not my fault.” For example, is it “not my fault” that my car ran out of gas? If that’s not my fault, then whose fault is it?

This exercise opens a conversation about victimization and agency and allows us to really discuss taking responsibility for what we can control and relinquishing guilt for what we cannot. We are then able to talk about people who are really victims – those against whom crimes or assaults were committed, civilians in war, people starving because of drought, children sold into slavery, the young woman who self-identifies as bipolar. We talk through what agency we might have in those situations – what element of control we can take and what element we cannot. It’s always one of the best discussions of the semester.

Before we wrap the conversation, I ask the students to reconsider their list. Without fail, many of those “not my faults” become “my faults,” and I can see a glimmer of empowerment shining behind their eyes.

I wish I could have this conversation with our entire society.

It’s a conversation I have with myself quite frequently. What is my choice and what is not?

It’s very easy for me to slip into this place where it seems I have no choices, where everything around me in inevitable. I don’t have time to write. I don’t have time to exercise. I’m never going to get ahead financially.

But then I remember this exercise, and I try to adjust my mindset. I know it’s my fault when I run out of gas, but am I willing to own the fact that I may have spread myself too thin with activities at the cost of my writing?

Of course, there are things beyond my control – either choices I’ve made that I cannot take back or the elements of life that just come at me without my choice at all. I cannot undo the fact that I quit my full-time teaching job three years ago (and for the record, I wouldn’t want to undo that), and I cannot bring my mother back to life, no matter how much I wish I could.

Yet, there are many, many things I can change – my attitude being the biggest. As long as I let myself believe that everything happens to me, as long as I see the priorities I’ve chosen as inevitable, as long as I play the victim, well, I have no agency, no way to make change.

So what are your choices, and what is beyond your control? What would you change if you realized you really could change it?