An Antidote for Cynicism
Every Breath I Take, Every Move I Make

The Problem of Choice

I'm tired of making choices,  having to figure out what to do with my time, what kind of cereal to buy, what to read and not read, what to listen to and not listen to, and even what clothes to put on in the morning. It is just too much effort.  In addition, having all those choices constricts my freedom. Really.

Consider my lunchtime today.  Most lunches I have with either my wife, my son, or one of a handful of friends.  I don't often choose the restaurant.  I let them.  But today was one of those almost bi-weekly occasions when I am free to eat alone.  I enjoy it.  I also make no choice.  I go to the same favorite restaurant and order the same meal.  They know me.  They often know what I want.  I love it.

I took something to read.  Now there's a choice.  I pick The Pedestrian, a book of essays, and dive in.  I'm making myself read everything, from the beginning, resisting the urge to skim or find that one bit of prose that hooks me in the title or first lines.  I play a game with myself, telling myself I have no choice, that I must read all the essays, from the beginning to the end and not skip over any.  I've done the same thing with music, making myself listen to an entire album all the way through without skipping any songs, or putting the IPod on shuffle and requiring myself to listen to whatever comes up.  It's my own petty war against the boosters of choice as an unparalleled social good, a protest against a cultural given. Or maybe I'm just contrarian.

The funny thing is that being anti-choice has some salutary effects, as I thought it might.  First, this artificial constriction makes me better able to appreciate whatever is in front of me.  I give it time. Those essays for example: one a humorous reflection on why farming wasn't what it was cracked up to be, another on implements of torture (which I might rather have skipped, but didn't), another on a hammer passed down through three generations, and another on mowing a field.  (The theme of the issue is "tools.")  I learned quite a bit about farming, about a hammer that had, well, been around a time or two, about how you cut a field of hay in Southern England in the early part of the 20th century.  I could easily have skipped any of those essays, but I didn't and feel richer for it, because you discover things, like this line from E.B. White: "I find it incredibly difficult to combine manual labor with intellectual, so I compromise and just do the manual."  Think about that.  That's funny.  Maybe it's more than funny.  Maybe it's profound.  I haven't figured that out yet.

Reading those essays took some focused attention, and I read them in sequence assuming that the editor of the journal may have some yet (f0r me) as undiscovered purpose in arranging them so.  My point: I am better able to absorb, understand, and appreciate the beauty of the words in front of me by letting them have their way with me, by being a slave to them for a time, by letting their subtleties wash over me.  You might say I "abide" in them.

Another good effect of a constriction of choice is that you are better able to understand how most of the world lives and the gratitude they may have --- often more so they us --- if they have anything at all.  Many of my Ugandan friends wake in the morning and the only choice they have about how to dress is to wear what they had on the day before.  In other words, they have no choice.  They may have Sunday clothes, but they often have only one set of everyday clothes.  They do not complain.  They relish what they have.  That is an attitude, really a blessing, that we who are "blessed" with many choices find difficult to come by, our attention diverted by yet another choice.  And yet we can glimpse it when we artificially constrict our choices, when we reflect deeply on, listen well to, or even savor the taste of what is before us.

Though choices we must make, having multiple choices is not an unqualified good.  In fact, in the midst of all this freedom I somehow feel less free, more enslaved by every whim and passion, and yet more easily bored and restless.  Maybe when Jesus says "abide in me" and do not let your hearts be troubled," he speaks even to the restlessness of choice, the perilousness of listening to whim, passion, and fashion.  He's saying rest.  Rest in me.  Focus on me.  Abide in me.  And then be content with what you have in front of you.  Live with a book or a song or even a food until you know it and fully appreciate it.  See it from my perspective.  Take whatever comes and learn to appreciate it.  That's when you become free.

 

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